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Op-Ed Wed Apr 13 2011

Youth In Play: Ameya Pawar and the People

This editorial was submitted by Cali Slaughter and Harishi Patel.

If anyone reminded young, progressive Chicagoans of the potential of the underdog in our most recent election cycle; it was Ameya Pawar. Pawar, an Indian-American, just 29, is not only going to be the youngest member of the Council when inaugurated on May 15; he is the first Asian-American elected to the City Council.

His rival, Tom O'Donnell, was personally selected by incumbent Eugene Schulter, who boasted a solid (albeit rusting) thirty-six year rule over Chicago's 47th.

O'Donnell was buttressed by loads more money and he possessed that inevitable confidence accompanied by the endorsement of a handful of Chicago's old guard. It seemed that minimal effort would be necessary for a landslide victory.


Pawar stored his campaign signs in a bowling alley. He didn't have the money to finance a campaign office. Equipped with the endorsement of the bowling alley's owner, the devoted support of a handful of college buddies and the enthusiasm of an avidly political fourteen year-old, he launched himself into Chicago's political tornado.

And won.

Why did he win? Pawar would deny it was luck. He claims you make your own luck.

During the campaign, Pawar by his count shook the hands of between ten and fifteen thousand residents in his ward. Perhaps this is why he won over one thousand more votes in this election than Schulter won in 2007, despite Schulter's powerful political back scratchers.

"I knew that I would not get any support from establishments, but I knocked on a lot of doors and it was very effective," Pawar said.

He and his growing team of volunteers mobilized voters with shoe leather rather than money. And it worked.

Of course, Pawar needed fresh ideas to present to those commencing their dinner as he knocked on their door to tell them why they should vote for him. He promised a refusal to become the ward's next "custodian," and that his leadership as alderman would be manifested in the simple principle that " have a voice and they do have something to contribute to the process."

His concrete proposals; from the promise of the re-institution of Ward Councils (providing residents with an elevated platform to discuss and vote on local issues) to the administration of an iPhone app, "Chicago Works" (creating a direct line of communication between Chicagoans and their aldermen); garnered huge support, despite the fact that many residents were left with a cold dinner at some point during his campaign.

More than anything, Pawar's victory marks a potential watershed in local politics. Pawar is a symbol, reflected in the power of people-powered movements in our politics. We are in the midst of stark, on-going reminders of our right and obligation to storm our streets and capitol buildings to create the change that we want to be.

Pawar told me, "I always felt like running for office is just as much a civic duty as voting." Chicago Millennials: it's time to resurrect this mentality.

To claim Pawar's victory was mere luck is to ignore to the backlashes against institutional power taking place in the rest of our city today. From eighteen year-old Devon Reid taking on the 26th Ward incumbent Roberto Maldonado, to twenty-eight year-old Hector Gonzalez launching an insurgent write-in campaign in the 13th Ward, to twenty-two year-old University of Chicago senior John Kozlar, running against the 11th Ward's incumbent, James Balcer; Chicago's young progressives are challenging the machine in innovative ways, one vote at a time. It's our obligation to participate in that.

Pawar's message to us today - both in belief and deed - is simple, yet powerful: "If you care about the place you live, then you should run." Let's bring more Pawar to the people.

Cali Slaughter is a free lance journalist and ghostwriter in Chicago
Harishi Patel is a strategic thinker, organizer, and activist working on issues locally and globally. Patel is an organizer with Progressive Alliance - Cook County.

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