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How Ameya Pawar Bowled Over 47th Ward

Joravsky gladly eats crow after young upstart busts machine

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It's crow-eating time.

Two weeks ago, I basically wrote that voters in the 47th Ward were too dumb to vote against Tommy O'Donnell, Alderman Eugene Schulter's hand-picked replacement.

Well, as you probably have read in every paper from here to New York, they proved me wrong.

Ameya Pawar, the 30-year-old rookie candidate, pulled off the upset of upsets in this ward that's roughly bounded by Addison and Foster, Ashland and the Chicago River. I still can't quite believe it even as I write this.

A month or so ago, most folks in the ward didn't even know his name; many of them still don't know how to pronounce it (A-may-ah Puh-war). He's a program assistant in the Office of Emergency Management at Northwestern University. He's only lived in the ward for the last four years. He's not from Chicago, having grown up in the suburbs. And unlike mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, he can't even claim that his relatives hail from Chicago. Pawar's parents immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1972.

But as the days drew closer to the February 22 election, it was like an ocean wave rising for him. He won 50.8 percent of the vote, just enough to avoid an April 5 runoff.

So how did this upset happen? Well, it sort of starts with Bob Kuhn, the owner of Timber Lanes bowling alley at 1851 W. Irving Park.

True confession: I've been bowling in a men's league at Timber Lanes for about 14 years. And all those years I've been hearing Kuhn moaning and groaning about the mayor, the aldermen, high taxes, and so on and so forth.

Joining his tirades was a chorus of neighborhood guys whose roots in the ward go back to the days of former Democratic committeeman Ed Kelly, with whom Schulter had a bitter falling-out.

In fact, a lot of the younger guys in the league probably thought Schulter's first name was Fuckin'—as in, "that fuckin' Schulter!"

Anyway, Kuhn, who calls himself a libertarian, and Pawar, who's more of a left- of-center progressive, are as different as night and day.

But it was love from the start when a mutual friend introduced them in the fall of 2009. As both men tell the story, Pawar laid out his reasons for running at their first meeting. He told Kuhn he was tired of rubber-stamp aldermen; he wanted to be the kind of legislator who scrutinized the mayor's proposals as opposed to routinely approving them. "We're in a crisis—on the verge of going bankrupt," says Pawar. "We can't go back to business as usual."

"I liked the kid," says Kuhn. "He's honest. He's smart. I told him, 'Ameya, you and I don't have to agree on everything. But I'll back you.'"

And with that, Pawar not only had a link to the old Kelly crowd—whose members probably will never forgive Schulter for running against the old man for committeeman in 2000—but also a place for volunteers to pick up signs, posters, and petitions. Which was crucial since Pawar didn't have enough money to rent an office.

In fact, he didn't have enough money to buy a campaign phone number or hire a staff. He convinced Sam Yanover, a friend from Maine East High School who'd been an advance man in President Obama's campaign, to work for free as his campaign manager. He got a couple of graduate school friends from the University of Chicago, Jim Poole and Charna Epstein, to help him write his position papers. And in February 2010 they launched Pawar's website. "We were hoping to get a groundswell of support," Yanover says.

Instead, they got a call from Jake Meeks, a 14-year-old freshman at Oak Park High School.

"He said, 'I saw your website. I want to join the campaign,'" says Pawar. "He sent us his resumé. Can you believe this? The kid had a resumé! He's like this 14-year-old political junkie. How can I say no to this guy?"

At this point, let's take a moment to run down the rosters in the fledgling campaign. On one side you have Pawar, backed by his high school classmate, two grad school friends, the libertarian f-bomb-dropping owner of a bowling alley, and a 14-year-old freshman from Oak Park High.

On the other side you have Schulter, the 35-year incumbent, who's backed by virtually every elected official on the north side, controls a treasure chest of over $800,000, and oversees a formidable army of patronage workers.

"We stashed our signs and stuff at Timber Lanes and basically operated out of a van," says Yanover.

On a hot day in August, Pawar started going door-to-door. "I went up to a house at Bradley and Damen," says Pawar. "I was so nervous—I was kind of shaking. The guy answers the door and I say, 'I'm Ameya Pawar and I'm running for alderman.' He asked me why. My answer was, 'We have to elect good legislators because what happens in other wards affects us whether we like it or not.' That was our message."

In January he got his first big break when Schulter and O'Donnell did their bizarre little shuffle. As I wrote at length two weeks ago, Schulter pulled out of the election and endorsed O'Donnell—a long time supporter. Also in the race were Tom Jacks and Matt Reichel.

"It's one thing to go up against Schulter, who everybody knows," says Yanover. "It's another thing to go up against O'Donnell, who hardly anyone knows."

On January 26 the candidates had a debate at Coonley elementary school. "They'd given us the questions in advance so we had time to prepare for them," says Pawar. "And Tom [O'Donnell] was reading his prepared responses."

Meanwhile, Jacks laced into Schulter. "He said, 'An alderman is not a king. And a ward is not his kingdom. And he doesn't get to anoint his successor,'" says Pawar.

Pawar articulated his platform—no more privatization deals, "blow up" the tax increment financing program, end budget gimmicks, conduct a forensic budget review, cut waste. He said the time had come for aldermen to stop being rubber stamps and to forcefully interject their ideas on citywide issues. It wasn't that his ideas were radical—it was how he said them. He sounded calm, measured, earnest, and thoughtful.

After that debate it was like a love bomb went off for Pawar. Videos of the event were posted on YouTube and Facebook juxtaposing O'Donnell reading from his text with Pawar speaking flawlessly. Money flowed in; Pawar raised roughly $30,000 in the last month of the campaign. Suddenly, he could pay for mailers and robocalls.

Like reporters all over town, I started getting calls and e-mails from love-struck groupies telling me I had to write about this young, handsome, charming second-coming of Barack Obama.

On February 15—just one week before the election—the candidates held a second debate at the Dank-Haus German American Cultural Center. It was O'Donnell's big chance at redemption, at proving he knew the issues.

Alas, he didn't show, canceling at the last minute on the grounds that he had another engagement. In his absence, the other candidates made mincemeat of him.

In the last week, O'Donnell fired off his big guns, sending out a mailer that featured a picture of him and Rahm Emanuel, who lives in the ward (or will, once he gets to move back to his old house, which, as you know, he rented out when he moved to Washington to work as Obama's chief of staff). "Tom O'Donnell earned my support because he is the only candidate and community leader who can get the job done for 47th Ward families," read the quote from Emanuel.

A second flyer showed head shots of 11 elected officials who supported O'Donnell, including Emanuel, former state comptroller Dan Hynes, congressman Mike Quigley, Cook County commissioners John Fritchey and Bridget Gainer, former Cook County commissioner Forrest Claypool, state representative Greg Harris, and state senator Heather Steans.

"I think that ultimately even all those endorsements backfired," says Yanover. "It's like, why are they trying to shove this guy down our throats?"

On election night, Pawar and his jubilant supporters headed over to Timber Lanes—where else?—to celebrate.

Reluctantly, I headed over to face the trash talk I knew I was going to hear.

For the record, O'Donnell ran a terrible campaign (skipping that debate was huge) against a very charming and articulate opponent, and he still got 43.5 percent of the vote. Schulter could run a potted plant in the ward and it would get over 40 percent of the vote, plus endorsements from Emanuel, Claypool, Fritchey, et al. (By the way, I happened to be interviewing Pawar the day after the election when Congressman Quigley called Pawar to basically say, "Sorry, man—my bad.")

The trash-talking started almost as soon as I walked through the Timber Lanes doors. "We proved you wrong, we proved you wrong," taunted Dara Salk, one particularly jubilant supporter.

Yes, Dara, you did.

So, voters of the 47th Ward—take your bow. You're not nearly as dumb as I thought.

At least I got one thing right about this last election: Black voters came out big for Emanuel, enabling him to win without a runoff.

Emanuel swept the north lakefront wards and ran well on the northwest side, but lost the southwest side and Hispanic vote to Gery Chico. It was black voters who put Emanuel over the top—just as I predicted way back on October 7. So, yay me!

"For Emanuel, the black vote is key," I wrote back then. "He's a north-side politician who's not well-known to black voters. That's why his ties to Obama are crucial. Black voters in Chicago are generally very proud of and loyal to Obama. If Obama comes out strong for his former chief of staff, Emanuel wins the black wards and with them the election."

Actually, Obama didn't even have to come out strong for Emanuel. A presidential wink and a nod—in this case saying that he thought Emanuel would make a good mayor—was all it took. Emanuel got roughly 60 percent of the vote in the predominantly black west- and south-side wards.

So now I get to collect on a whole bunch of bets made with a whole bunch of doubters, including Mick Dumke, my old Reader writing partner, who said absolutely no way would Emanuel win the black vote.

Of course, it didn't hurt that Emanuel's main black opponent—former U.S. senator Carol Moseley Braun—ran a particularly wretched campaign, as Mick pointed out when I called to gloat.

As you remember, she was the candidate state senator James Meeks and Congressman Danny Davis endorsed after dropping from the race as part of the black consensus process overseen by the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Not that I would dare advise Reverend Jackson about politics, but maybe the time's come to reconsider this whole black consensus thing. It may have had its moment back in 1983, when Harold Washington was running for mayor against two white candidates in a winner-takes-all Democratic primary.

But it's not 1983 anymore—something even I have come to recognize.

We now have a nonpartisan mayoral election. If no candidate gets over 50 percent in the first round, the top two vote getters have a runoff.

African-Americans are a third of the city's residents—so a black mayoral candidate needs more than black votes to win. And the votes of whites, Hispanics, and Asians aren't going to be easy to get if black leaders hold what amounts to a for-members-only slating session.

As Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle and President Obama can tell you, it's time for all races and ethnicities to think outside the box.

Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.

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