Eight years ago, Ameya Pawar became the first and only Asian American alderman in Chicago. When he handed over the reigns of the 47th Ward to newly elected alderman Matt Martin Monday, Pawar became the city’s last Asian American alderman — for now.
Elected in 2011 and reelected in 2015, Pawar did not run for the seat this year. The 39-year-old leaves office honoring a self-imposed, two-term limit. And his departure leaves Chicago’s fastest-growing demographic with no representation on City Council.
Pawar says that during the past eight years, he felt pressure to do well on behalf of the Asian American community — all while representing his predominantly white, well-to-do North Side ward, which encompasses parts of North Center, Roscoe Village, Lincoln Square, Ravenswood and Uptown.
“I felt like I needed to be successful,” he says. “I had to be successful, because I didn’t want to be the last Asian American elected.”
“You’re not really supposed to be here”
Pawar was a newcomer to politics when he ran for the 47th Ward seat. During that campaign, he says he encountered more racial animus than he had in his life, hearing comments like “Don’t vote for Dunkin’ Donuts” and questions about where he was born. Pawar says he received little to no fundraising support.
Against the odds, in February 2011, he went on to defeat a candidate backed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the ward’s most prominent resident. Sometime afterward, an Emanuel operative sat down with Pawar to discuss the new alderman’s agenda.
“He said, ‘You know, alderman, we don’t even know how you got here, and you’re not really supposed to be here,’” Pawar recalls. “I think he was signaling to me, like, just be happy that you made history, but keep your mouth shut and know your role.”
The following eight years on the City Council were not easy, navigating rough-and-tumble Chicago politics for the first time and fielding requests from Asian American advocacy groups who saw in him a natural ally given his ethnicity and immigrant experience. Pawar says he had no “natural allies to turn to,” like his colleagues in the City Council’s black and Latino caucuses.
“It’s lonely because you can’t make everyone happy,” he says. “It’s lonely because you don’t have someone there to partner with you. In the political realm, you don’t have any natural allies to turn to ... especially when people are making you feel like you don’t really belong in the first place.”
Pawar, who was at times criticized for not working closely enough with the City Council’s Progressive Caucus and for siding with Emanuel on some issues, says his record speaks for itself.
“I’m proud of the fact that nearly every single labor policy that’s passed in City Council over the last eight years I’ve either led or co-led,” he says. “I’ve gotten an opportunity to go big, and my constituents made that possible.”
Pawar led the effort to pass an ordinance that guarantees paid sick leave, as well as to increase Chicago’s minimum wage. Inspired by the experience of his textile mill worker grandfather, as well as news about the 2013 garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that claimed more than 1,000 lives, Pawar also got an ordinance passed that prohibits the city from buying products made in sweatshops.
Shaped by immigrant family
“My parents are immigrants from India,” Pawar says. “My dad was born in 1942, during colonial rule in a home with dirt floors, doing homework by candlelight, without running water. He had typhoid as a boy.”
The story of his parents, and growing up in the diverse Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, shaped his progressive political views. But this narrative, Pawar says, is lost in the assumptions people made about his ethnicity and race.
“In the political world, people are like, ah, the Asian American community is fine — you guys are all hard workers, and you have money,” he says. “Without understanding that there are real issues; there are higher levels of poverty amongst Asian immigrant groups, that language access in [Chicago Public Schools] is a true issue.”
The Asian American community is diverse: immigrants and U.S.-born people from dozens of countries, speaking distinct languages, having the widest income gap between the rich and the poor of any U.S. racial group. In the Chicago area, Asian Americans are spread out throughout various parts of the city and suburbs.
Andy Kang (no relation), executive director of the Chicago chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, says he appreciated Pawar’s partnership.
“If you’re the first anything, there’s a lot of challenges that are thrown your way,” Kang says. “Ald. Pawar has been fairly reflective and transparent about sharing some of those challenges with different community leaders, including myself. I’d say in the end, there’s a lot of things for him to look back on and be proud of.”
Kang praised Pawar’s work on behalf of the working poor, which includes many Asian American communities.
State Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, herself the daughter of Chinese immigrants and the first Asian American elected to the Illinois General Assembly, says Pawar leaves another legacy.
“For a lot of people in the Asian American community, it meant a lot to see somebody who looked like them and came from a similar background in a position like that,” she says.
Popular in his ward
Less than a week before his last day on the City Council, Pawar received a standing ovation from a room full of constituents at his final community town hall, held at Sulzer Regional Library in Lincoln Square.
After an extended Q&A session, people formed a line to shake Pawar’s hand, give him a hug and lament his departure.
Pawar’s constituents hold the alderman in high regard: He was reelected in 2015 for a second term with 82% of the vote — the highest tally of any aldermanic candidate.
Lenore Kimmel, 77, is a resident and ward office volunteer. She says Pawar’s racial identity didn’t matter to her.
“[His Asian American identity] didn’t have any effect on anything that he tried to do,” she says. “There’s black, there’s white, there’s … you know … I never really thought about it.”
But Pawar says he has.
“I always felt like an outsider [in City Council],” he says. “I think there’s a lot of people who talk about intersectionality in social justice, but they aren’t necessarily interested in the Asian American experience. You sort of feel like a token at times.”
Still, he considers the election of his successor, Matt Martin — who is biracial and also the ward’s first black alderman — as progress. Pawar also points to the success of other Asian American elected officials like Mah; state Sen. Ram Villivalam, who is Indian; and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Josina Morita, who is Japanese and Chinese.
As for Asian Americans on the City Council, “I want to be able to pass the baton,” Pawar says. “I think in a few years, we should be able to say we have multiple Asian Americans in City Council.”
In his final newsletter to his constituents, Pawar wrote about a point during his first campaign when he felt like quitting the race: “There is nothing more pure about our political process than talking to you. It didn’t matter that I had no money or that I was a renter or young or whatever trope was being used against me. What mattered was that we were all concerned about schools, services, and our city. I was back — and all-in.”
He continued: “We accomplished a lot. I made some mistakes along the way, but you stuck with me and we stuck together.”
Pawar also thanked his constituents for allowing him to run for governor in 2017. Later that year, he dropped out of the field for the March 2018 Democratic primary because of a lack of funds.
Pawar went on to launch a bid for city treasurer, a race in which he got several key endorsements, but he came up short in an April runoff to former state Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin.
“Thank you and see you around the neighborhood. Pawar out.” he wrote.
While Pawar says he is interested in work around affordable housing, he has yet to announce plans for what’s next. “The calls are coming in,” he says. “The thing I’m trying to do most right now is just be present [to my wife and daughter] and think about what’s next and be introspective.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter at @estheryjkang.