Alderman-elect Ameya Pawar: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

By Samantha Abernethy | Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ameya Pawar turned the locker room of Timber Lanes into campaign headquarters. Here, Chicago News Cooperative reporter Hunter Clauss interviews the alderman-elect. Photo by Samantha Abernethy.

The election in the 47th ward produced the biggest shocker of the 2011 municipal elections.

After Rahm Emanuel handily won the mayoral throne, Chicago media turned its eyes on 30-year-old Ameya Pawar, 47th ward alderman-elect.

When Ald. Gene Schulter announced in January that he wouldn’t run again, it created the first open election in the ward in 36 years. Still, as Schulter’s endorsed candidate, Tom O’Donnell was largely expected to either win the seat or lead the pack to a runoff.

When election numbers came in, even Pawar was surprised. Media scrambled to find him, and the Pawar campaign threw together an open press event at Timber Lanes, 1851 W. Irving Park.

The regular Tuesday night bowling crowd was suddenly surrounded by news cameras and Pawar supporters awaiting his arrival.

“In the last four weeks, we went from a small four-person organization to hundreds of you,” Pawar said as he thanked supporters election night.

Although election papers were filed in November, all four campaigns didn’t kick it into high gear until the final four weeks, after Schulter announced he would not run. O’Donnell hadn’t even hired a campaign manager.

But Pawar started his campaign 15 months ago, when he first decided to take on Schulter. His slow and steady approach held strong against O’Donnell’s campaign, which had the money and big name supporters including Schulter, Emanuel and Forrest Claypool.

O’Donnell quickly covered the ward in yard signs and campaign mailings in the final weeks. Pawar enjoyed a quick fundraising surge after the January 26 candidates forum at Coonley Elementary. It was the only campaign event attended by all four candidates. O’Donnell opted out of the rest.

The other two candidates, Matt Reichel and Tom Jacks, also tried to keep O’Donnell’s momentum down. In forums Reichel, Jacks and Pawar treated O’Donnell as an incumbent, calling him Schulter’s “anointed successor.”

At Timber Lanes Tuesday, 15-year-old Jacob Meeks, Pawar’s wise-beyond-his-years field organizer, said he had also been interning with Emanuel’s campaign, but quit so he could help Pawar make the push in the final weeks.

While a bowling alley is not an ideal location for a media scrum, Pawar says Timber Lanes is where it started, and owners Bob and Karen Kuhns encouraged him in the early days of his campaign.

A week ago, Center Square Journal could call up Pawar whenever we wanted to find out what was going on in the campaign and come election night, we were one of few news outlets who knew anything about him.

When we sat down with Pawar Wednesday, it was between an interview with the New York Times and an appearance on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight.”

“Name an outlet, and I’ve spoken to them,” said Pawar.

He returned to the bowling alley Wednesday and held interviews in the locker room. By mid-afternoon, his voice was starting to grow hoarse.

“I’m a pretty low-key person, so it’s kind of surreal,” he said of the media attention.

He also had his first phone conversation with mayor-elect Emanuel earlier that day, who he had never met.

“He just said that he wants to help me be the best alderman I can be and that he looks forward to working with me and I look forward to working with Rahm Emanuel,” said Pawar.

Pawar will be a young, fresh face in the City Council—so was Schulter, who was 26 when he first took the reins in the 47th ward. But Pawar is also the first alderman of Asian descent.

Pawar is the son of Indian immigrants and grew up in Des Plaines. He moved to the 47th ward four years ago, where just five percent of the population is Asian.

“As a legislator, while I may not represent the Indian community or the Pakistani community or the Asian community directly, … my door is open to them. That’s what an alderman is supposed to do,” he said. “I can be an advocate for the Asian-American community.”

Pawar says the victory was humbling. He thanked his parents, saying “I stand on their shoulders.”

The real campaign may be over, but you might still see Pawar knocking on doors in the coming weeks. After his narrow, unexpected victory, Pawar says he will continue his campaign to reach those who didn’t cast their vote for him.

“I have to work with everyone. I represent everyone now,” he said Wednesday. “And so the election is over, but I’ve got to build a relationship with the people that didn’t vote for me.”

In the coming months Pawar wants to start putting together his ward council, something he spoke of often in his campaign. He plans to build a group of community leaders to guide his decision-making and make 47th ward politics more transparent.

He’ll also start networking with his new colleagues in the City Council, but he doesn’t think of it in terms of “making alliances.”

“It’s not about creating a North Side caucus and a South Side caucus. While it’s important to have some sort of alignment, balkanizing the city is not going to any good,” he said. “We need to start acting like one city.”

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