Big ideas, small tasks: a new alderman's balancing act

May 16, 2011

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(WBEZ/ Odette Yousef)
Pawar wants his new ward office to feel like an internet startup crossed with a coffeeshop.

Today’s swearing-in ceremony will usher thirteen new faces on to Chicago city council. Many of them won on the promise of change, including Ameya Pawar of the far north side’s 47th Ward.

Pawar wants to help make government smarter, faster, and more inclusive. His idealism won over constituents... but many are watching to see how it will align with the practicalities of being a Chicago alderman.

Ameya Pawar’s first real political battle is shaping up to be quite different from what he may have hoped.

PAWAR: We issued a letter to the City of Chicago and to the budget office and the Treasurer’s office asking them how I can reduce my salary.

Yes. REDUCE his salary.

PAWAR: The answer that I got back was no. That I would have to amend the ordinance which sets the salary for aldermen...

It’s set at 108 thousand dollars... but Pawar promised to take only 60 thousand, and put the rest back into the ward.

PAWAR: So that would require spending almost all my political capital in getting 25 other aldermen to vote to amend the ordinance so that I could just simply reduce my salary. So that kind of puts me in a jam right now. I made a promise, but nonetheless we’re going to keep it.

Pawar wants to use the money to hire extra staff, or to help a non-profit that works in the 47th.

With Chicago’s budget mess, you wouldn’t think it would be so hard to give a pay cut to an employee that ASKS for one.

Welcome to Chicago city government. But Pawar isn’t fazed by setbacks.

If he were, he would never have run for the office and scored his improbable win. Just a few months ago, the thirty year old Indian-American was a political unknown. He was working in Northwestern University’s emergency preparedness office. Pawar says he wanted to see if someone could run a positive campaign about issues, and win.

At first, Pawar struggled.

PAWAR: I can’t tell you how many times I was told not to do this, that I would be damaging my career, that I would make enemies, or that I was simply crazy.

Incumbent Eugene Schulter was a shoo-in and, for months, Pawar couldn’t raise more than five thousand dollars. But Schulter dropped out at the eleventh hour on the hopes of another job. … suddenly, it was an open seat... and Pawar gained momentum after ward residents heard him at debates. Pawar trounced Schulter’s hand-picked successor... a member of the ward’s Democratic establishment. So now... ward residents will have a new alderman for the first time in 36 years... and the question is... how will ward life change?

FITZGERALD: It’s nothing on him, it’s simply the number of staff he’s going to have.

This is Garrett Fitzgerald. He’s executive director of the Northcenter Chamber of Commerce. Before that, Fitzgerald worked in Schulter’s office, helping respond to calls for services.

FITZGERALD: Tree trims, graffiti, missing garbage carts. We even got a call -- a woman’s husband had gone to the hardware store and gotten the wrong kind of paint, and called us to see if we could help her get it refunded.

Fitzgerald says it was a full workload for Schulter’s staff of nine. Pawar will have only three... because he’s new on council and won’t chair any committees. Fitzgerald thinks Pawar has the energy to keep up with constituent services.

But it might be tough for Pawar to also find time to keep his big-picture promises. For one, Pawar wants to create ward councils that advise him on budgeting and legislative priorities. Fitzgerald says the ideas are exciting... but Pawar will have to be prepared to see some flounder:

FITZGERALD: some point down road some of these ideas aren’t going to work out, some of them are not going to work the way he thought they would. And his abilty to identify those areas that aren’t working and change and either go back to an older way of doing it, or completely look at it new again, is going to be essential to his success.

In the end, it may be the details that Pawar doesn’t wallow in that determine his success... making sure the potholes are filled, and garbage is collected.

Odette Yousef, WBEZ.