Ameya Pawar, Candidate for Governor
Prior to 2011, I had no political experience of any kind, whatsoever. When I decided to run for alderman of Chicago’s 47th Ward, challenging a candidate backed by the Chicago machine, I had no money and no endorsements. But that didn’t stop me and my tiny grassroots campaign from knocking on every door in my community and talking with people about the issues that mattered to them. In the last six years, I’ve learned how to gain support for long overdue projects, like Chicago’s independent budget office, a proposal I introduced in 2012, that is now a reality. But there is one pervasive aspect of politics that I have never and may never feel entirely comfortable with: talking about myself incessantly.
It has always been my intention to let people judge who I am and what I stand for by the outcomes of my work. That is how the leaders I most admire conduct themselves, and it has always seemed both more honest and more powerful to me. I’ve also had the luxury of representing a community where I can be available and accessible to all those who want to get to know me in person. Whether they want to ask about my education policy or simply share their opinion on local business development, they can walk right into my office.
Recently, though, for a few reasons I’ve begun to question part of my philosophy. First, my wife has been telling me that people need to know more about me as a person, my background, and my motivations. She is right when she tells me that we all have to do things at work that we aren’t thrilled about, but if they’re for an important end, we suck it up and do them. Asking people for their vote is the greatest request for trust that can be made in a democracy. So I realize that it’s my responsibility to build the trust necessary to make such a request in good faith.
Second, there have been individuals and news outlets suggesting there is no minority candidate in this race. This claim caught me by surprise, even amid a political race. Last time I checked — this morning while shaving, and this afternoon in the window of a car — I am brown. I’m not African American. I’m not Latino. I am Asian American. I’m Indian American, the first one ever elected to Chicago City Council. My parents moved to Illinois from India in the 1970s to make a better life for themselves and their family. As for all people, my life has been shaped by my background.
My father grew up in India under British rule. The British were wealthy and few, while the Indian people were many and kept poor. My dad had no running water growing up and had to do homework by candlelight. He was malnourished. He got typhoid. The British maintained power through a strategy called “divide and rule” which kept the Indian people divided and poor, fighting each other over scraps.
When my dad came to Illinois he became an engineer who worked on the factory floor. He was laid off several times due to downsizing or offshoring or automation. One employer refused to pay him. We’d have a good year and a bad year. But my parents got by with hard work and support from their community. The kept at it, and they found their piece of the American dream.
I am even more of a minority in the current election. The other candidates are either billionaires or many times multi-millionaires. I’m not a billionaire, or a millionaire. Every month, my student loans and the child care for my daughter cost more than my mortgage. I grew up in a blue collar household that primarily depended on one income. We had two incomes at times, but no income at other times). Until I was seven years old, we lived in an apartment off Devon Avenue in Chicago. But like many families, when it came time for me to start school we left for the suburbs. That proved difficult, as we faced housing discrimination in some areas, until we landed in the welcoming immigrant community of unincorporated Des Plaines.
Once there, I did well in middle school but skated my way through high school, where a few teachers told me I wasn’t college material. I was always interested in foreign affairs and history, but I was usually a lackluster student. My high school antics left me with few prospects for further education. I bounced around at community college before starting to get my act together. Eventually, I made my way to Missouri Valley College, where I knuckled down, big time. Through grit (and $300k worth of debt) I made my way into grad school at IIT and then the University of Chicago, where I earned two master’s degrees, in threat response management and social service administration.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and it changed the trajectory of my life’s work. I could not believe what I saw from the leaders of the wealthiest nation in the history of humanity: our politicians blamed those most devastated by the storm for their poverty. They did not mention the decades of divestment that had despoiled the hardest hit communities.
In the wreckage wake of Hurricane Katrina, I saw the convergence of my family’s story — punctuated with work instability and wage theft — with the stories of so many other families around the country. I ran for office because I wanted to be of service (my backup plan if I lost was the military). I ran because it is disgraceful for civic leaders in the most powerful nation on earth to blame the disenfranchised for their weakness. It is exactly their job to do something about it.
When I was elected alderman in an upset victory against a candidate backed by the establishment, I gained what Theodore Roosevelt called “the best prize that life has to offer”: the chance to work hard at work worth doing. So I got to work.
I passed one of the strongest anti-wage theft ordinances in the country. I co-chaired the Chicago Working Families task force which led to the passage of Chicago’s paid sick leave ordinance. I worked to raise the minimum wage. We secured millions of dollars for our neighborhood schools—and created a model that helps make schools the anchors of their communities.
Today in Illinois, our government is not working. We’re entering our third year without a state budget, which should be the bare minimum a government does. Social service agencies and schools are shutting their doors. The refusal to work together on even the most basic things is keeping us from the urgent work we’re supposed to be doing as a state—which is to lay the foundation for shared prosperity for future generations. I’m proposing a New Deal in Illinois—one which rebuilds our crumbling infrastructure, reinvests in good-paying jobs, and recommits to early childhood education and public schools. And we can do it all without further burdening the middle class.
We can increase funding to all public schools across the state by eliminating corporate tax loopholes. We can provide universal access to childcare and support working families with paid sick leave, fair scheduling practices, parental leave and a living wage. With New Deal infrastructure programs we can create tens of thousands of new middle-class jobs and repair aging infrastructure across Illinois. With much-needed reforms to our criminal justice system we can refocus resources from prisons to diversion programs, job training and placement and social and mental health services.
The people at the top always tell us the ticket to a better life is tax cuts for them and fewer protections for everyone else. They say growth comes from insecurity and a race to the bottom between workers and businesses. But that approach has never worked a single time in our history. It just stacks the deck against those who work hard and can’t get ahead. They tell us to do more with less. And now we’re doing less with less. They leave us fighting over scraps.
My campaign is based on the idea that inspiring a movement of people is the best way to combat the enormous amount of money in this race. That’s why on June 15 I’m doing a statewide virtual town hall to share my vision for our state and bring people together to have the kinds of conversations that no longer seem possible in today’s politically divisive environment. I hope you can join me.
I have no other interests beyond my family and civil service. I have no conflicts of interest, but I have a lot of interest in policies that conflict with the way our state is currently run. As the Indian American son of immigrants; as the child of a blue collar household; as a current tens-of-thousands-aire, I am a minority in this race. It just means I have to work harder than the next candidate. Like my parents before me, that’s exactly what I plan to do.