Chicago gets first Asian-American alderman

February 23, 2011

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Asian-Americans say they’re proud to see one of their own finally win a seat on Chicago’s City Council, and that the electoral success  was inevitable because their community is growing at a fast rate. Thirty-year-old Ameya Pawar unexpectedly toppled the 47th Ward’s political establishment when he won the aldermanic race outright, with close to 51 percent of the vote. He will replace longtime alderman Eugene Schulter, who dropped his candidacy just weeks before the vote.
 
Pawar says he will always keep his door open to Asian-American constituents, but that his ethnicity played no role during his campaign. “It didn't come up at all,” said Pawar, “because I think people were generally just interested in why I was running, what my plans were, and how I planned on implementing things.” Pawar was born in the U.S.; his parents hail from India.
 
Still, Pawar says if it hadn’t been for support from within Chicago’s Asian-American community, he could very well have lost. In particular, he credits the Indo-American Democratic Organization, a 30-year-old group that promotes political participation within Chicago’s Indian American population. “They’ve been instrumental,” said Pawar. “I think when they came on board and they endorsed me, it was sort of a tipping point. We got a lot of support right afterwards.”
 
Many political aspirants of Asian origin have tried to crack the glass ceiling before Pawar. But this election saw more than any recent Chicago election, says Tuyet Le of the Asian-American Institute. Le counted six candidates in aldermanic races throughout the city who claim Asian roots. 
 
The latest census results show that while the city’s overall population decreased about seven percent between 2000 and 2010, Chicago’s Asian-American population increased by 17 percent, making it one of the fastest-growing minority groups in the city. Le said it was just a question of time before that translated into a growth in the number of Asian-Americans seeking political office.
 
But many did not expect this breakthrough would happen in, of all places, a far North Side ward that encompasses Ravenswood and Lincoln Square. “(Ward) 47 has an Asian population,” said C.W. Chan of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, “but (it’s) not even predominant, or not even having a sizeable number like many, many other wards.” According to the Asian-American Institute, the 50th, 25th, and 11th Wards had the highest percentages of Asian-Americans in the 2000 census.

Another one-time political aspirant of South Asian descent hoped Pawar’s victory is a sign of things to come. Raja Krishnamoorthi galvanized Illinois’s Asian-American community when he ran last year for state comptroller. He lost in the Democratic primary, but he says his campaign, and Pawar’s big step are signs of the Asian-American community’s political maturation. “I think that this is a really great indication of increasing political participation by Asian-Americans,” said Krishnamoorthi, “and I think everyone in Chicago can take joy in that.”