As election night stretched into early morning, a tired and hungry Ameya Pawar plopped down on one of the 14 stools at Diner Grill. The tiny, 24-hour greasy spoon on Irving Park Road just west of Ashland Avenue, little more than a single counter, was a relatively unremarkable final stop in a rather remarkable day.
A few hours earlier, the 30-year-old tasted unlikely victory in the 47th Ward aldermanic race, beating out Tom O’Donnell—the politically connected contender endorsed by retiring longtime Ald. Eugene Schulter and Rahm Emanuel—to become the first Indian-American elected to the City Council.
Following the surprise win, Pawar, some campaign volunteers and friends toasted his triumph at Timber Lanes, the vintage bowling alley that became an unofficial campaign headquarters. The official HQ? The candidate’s basement apartment in North Center.
Like butter into Diner Grill hotcakes, the enormity of what had transpired was just beginning to sink in for Pawar, who was raised in Rogers Park until his family moved to Des Plaines when he was seven. The underdog had choked the remaining life out of the Democratic political machine. In a ward with a long pedigree of machine bosses, fresh ideas won out over influence. Schulter, alderman since he was installed in 1975 at the age of 26 by clout-heavy predecessor Edmund Kelly, didn’t announce his retirement until January 17, little more than a week before ballots were printed. The easy handoff was supposed to go to O’Donnell. The jowly special assistant to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart quickly circulated petitions to get on the ballot.
But Pawar, who has master’s degrees from IIT and U. of C. and works as a program assistant in Northwestern University’s Office of Emergency Management, made big impressions at three candidate forums with a platform built on fiscal responsibility, including tax-increment financing reform and putting an end to privatizing city assets as a budget stopgap. Meanwhile, O’Donnell touted his endorsements and showed up to only one candidate forum, where he read from prepared notes.
From O’Donnell’s curious last-minute entry into the race, Pawar says he suspected old Chicago political trickery might be afoot. His campaign signs and banners started to disappear from businesses and lawns—a well-worn tactic. Some were replaced by signs for O’Donnell. Security camera videos from West Lakeview Liquors at 2156 West Addison Street, obtained by Pawar’s campaign and posted to YouTube, show a man in a dark, hooded raincoat swiping Pawar’s signs from bushes. (Neither Schulter nor O’Donnell returned numerous phone calls requesting comment.) A couple of days before the election, a big yellow Penske moving truck sporting Tom O’Donnell signs conveniently parked directly in front of an empty storefront where Pawar’s people had posted signs. The message was clear: Don’t fuck with the machine.
“I had a lot of people tell me that I shouldn’t rock the boat,” Pawar says. “But the lesson in this race was that it’s not about how much money or influence you have, it’s about what you have to say. The old way of doing things no longer works.”
Pawar’s fight against the old way is far from over, says UIC political science professor Dick Simpson. Early in the campaign, Pawar sought the counsel of the former 44th Ward alderman, who led the City Council’s opposition bloc against Richard J. Daley and Michael Bilandic from ’71 to ’79. Simpson gave Pawar the idea to form a ward council made up of one resident in each precinct to get the community involved in decision making.
“He’s trying to think for himself,” says Simpson, who sees his younger self in Pawar. “He’s not beholden to the machine or any particular group.” Simpson is well aware of what a nonaligned councilman will face in the gladiator ring that is the City Council: “The machine, when it’s in control,” he says, “is not happy with new, independent-minded aldermen.”