The Biggest Upset of the Chicago Elections

While national attention on the 2011 Chicago municipal elections is squarely on the victory of Rahm Emanuel as Chicago's new mayor-elect, a little-known candidate has quietly defied the establishment by pulling the biggest upset of the night. Ameya Pawar, a 30-year-old Northwestern University program assistant, will become the first Indian-American to become a Chicago alderman when the new city council takes office, and he will get there having been outmanned, outspent, and running against the incumbent alderman's handpicked successor.

I first met Ameya just over a year ago at a Northside Democracy for America meeting in the cramped, upstairs party room of Chicago's Fizz Bar. Accompanied by his friend and field director Jim Poole, he was introducing himself to other attendees of the associations' monthly gathering. When it came around to my turn, the conversation went like this:

Pawar: Hi, I am Ameya Pawar, and I am running for 47th ward alderman.

Me: Gene Schulter's ward? The guy sitting on a pile of cash who has been alderman since 1975? You are nuts.

Not being a resident of the 47th ward or a believer in his chances, I fully expected a thank you and for Ameya to go onto his next introduction. Instead I got his platform. He spoke about full accounting of tax increment financing (TIF) money, how city services would have to be equitably delivered to reduce costs, and political staples like lower property taxes, safer schools, and crime prevention.

And then it got interesting...

He was advocating for a pay reduction for alderman, vowing to take only $60,000 of his $110,000 aldermanic salary. He planned on doing an independent annual audit of all ward expenses for community members to see. He wanted to expand the participatory budget process from the 49th ward to the 47th ward. He even wanted to create a mini-city council at the ward level to bring in not just the input of ward constituents, but also to give them the actual power to make decisions. It was an ambitious agenda delivered with a mastery of the details, something I had not heard from any candidate before. After several hours of talking with Ameya, the conversation went like this:

Me: You are going to make a brilliant politician one day. In this race, you are nuts. Gene Schulter will crush you.

And with a wry smile he answered, "Then he will crush me, but someone has to try."

As it turns out, it wasn't Alderman Eugene Schulter he had to beat last night; rather, it was Gene Schulter's appointed heir to the 47th ward, former chief of staff Tom O'Donnell. In what was one of the oddest side stories of this election, Alderman Eugene Schulter (after filing for reelection) abruptly retired from the city for a failed bid for Joe Berrios's old property tax appeals board seat. While O'Donnell has been quoted as saying there was nothing planned, he too had filed for his mentor's seat (presumably to run against him) days before the deadline.

With Schulter anointing O'Donnell, the money, party endorsements followed. Everyone with a hand in the 47th started lining up, including Dan Hynes, Tom Dart, Teamsters, and the Fire and Police unions. While O'Donnell made some questionable campaign choices and had a less than stellar debate performance, the easy money was on him to becoming the next 47th ward alderman.

Meanwhile, Ameya Pawar stuck to his platform. This election would be about the people of the ward, not the powers that be. With his campaign staff (including Campaign Manager, Sam Yanover) and volunteers swelling to four, Ameya took the Wellstone approach and hit the streets of the 47th ward one house at a time. If you saw his staff, you would hardly believe that this group pulled one of the greatest of upsets last night. His field director is a large, bearded man with an infectious laugh and a stand-out-of-the-limelight demeanor. His baby-faced treasurer made you want to ask if he was even old enough to open a checking account. They weren't your normal political players, but they were so much more effective because of it.

His staff was his platform -- it is the people working to make the change, not a candidate or party. If you walked into Timber Lanes Bowling Alley where the impromptu victory party was held, you understood how this accomplishment was achieved. He convinced the ward's residents to give him a chance. Like he did to me a year before, he sold them on his bottom-up approach to governing, and they in return gave him a campaign and $10,000 to spend. It was an independent crowd, some who had been organizing since they were Ameya's age, some for whom this was likely the very first campaign they had ever worked on. They were excited, tired, and amazed -- almost as much as the candidate himself -- that the people, for one night, were able to push back on the establishment. And this May, when Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel takes over the new city council, Ameya Pawar will be Emanuel's new 47th ward alderman.

Editor's note: The original post incorrectly identified Jim Poole as field organizer. As a reader pointed out, he is actually the field director. Jacob Meeks was the field organizer.