In search of relief from the grim, dog-eat-dog politics of President Trump’s first days in office—oh, how will I survive four years of this?—I’ve gone back in time to revisit the good old days of FDR.
Actually, it was 47th Ward alderman Ameya Pawar, a relative youngster at age 36, who reminded me about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s noble efforts to pull the country out of the Great Depression with social security, public works projects, and the other bedrocks of the New Deal.
Pawar contends that Illinois voters will positively respond to a theme of government as your friend. He says such declarations will help him win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and beat Governor Bruce Rauner in 2018.
Yes, folks, in the aftermath of Trump’s inauguration, it’s time to think about what’s next. That means the midterm elections. The state primaries are about a year away. Lord knows Rauner’s thinking about them—the billionaire governor just contributed another $50 million to his reelection campaign fund.
“I don’t have Rauner’s money—so I’ll have to outwork him,” Pawar says. “I believe we have to change the narrative in this state. Rauner’s told us that government is the enemy. Just like Trump, Rauner’s played on our differences, pitting one group against another. He’s got us fighting over scraps.”
If elected, Pawar says he’d spend more money on schools and finance public works projects throughout the state, putting people to work paving roads, and building parks, hospitals, and schools—whatever is needed.
“Rauner talks about all the money he has personally donated, but government can never be replaced by philanthropy,” Pawar says. “I applaud philanthropy, but it just can’t be rich people telling us who gets what. I say pay your fair share of taxes, and let’s get government to determine how it’s spent. We can’t have a sustainable system of contributions from rich people who then write it off on their taxes.”
To pay for his public works projects, Pawar says he’d immediately slap a 3 percent surcharge on the incomes of millionaires, and he’d push to pass a graduated income tax—which means an even bigger tax hike for the well-to-do.
As for the state’s pension crisis, he’d bring unions to the table. “If you can stop demonizing public employees, you can get them to the table,” he says. “But it’s not going to work by calling them corrupt and demanding concessions.”
To those who say such dreams are impossible, he invokes the spirit of FDR, who faced far tougher challenges when he was first elected in 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression.
“FDR created social security—his programs created the middle class,” Pawar says. “He put together an impossible coalition of rural and urban people of different races and backgrounds.”
OK, this isn’t the Great Depression. But income inequality in America is the worst it’s been since then, according to a 2013 study from the Pew Research Center.
“People are suffering,” Pawar says. “People don’t vote for carnival barkers like Trump unless they’re suffering.”
—47th Ward alderman Ameya Pawar
Talk like that fires up a boomer like me, who was raised by parents who grew up during the Depression, worshipping FDR. Of course, this is not the first time I’ve been stirred by Pawar’s idealism. He first came to my attention in the summer of 2010 when the proprietor of my neighborhood bowling alley kept telling me about “this Pawar kid you gotta meet.”
At the time, Pawar was going door-to-door in the ward, telling voters it was time to rethink the way we finance local government, starting with the dreaded tax increment financing program. He wanted to “blow up” TIFs. It was music to my ears.
Once in office, however, he put aside such rebellious plans and became a fairly dependable ally of Mayor Rahm. And so, for at least a year after he was elected, we went at it, with me bugging him to take a stronger stand against Rahm and him telling me what so many other young elected officials—from former alderman Will Burns to state rep Christian Mitchell—have told me: You can’t fight the man.
As if Chicago politics was a 1970s Blaxploitation flick starring Pam Grier!
Instead, you cut your deals to get what you can—like Barack Obama did. In Pawar’s case, he dropped his calls for citywide TIF reform so he could spend local TIF dollars on public schools in his ward.
My guess is Pawar and I will be arguing about his first years in office for a long, long time.
“There may have been things I’d do differently—especially with the early budget cuts,” he says. “But I’m proud of the money that we spent on neighborhood schools in the ward.”
As was the case in his first aldermanic campaign, Pawar has no significant endorsements. In fact, his very candidacy is at odds with the conventional wisdom of house speaker Michael Madigan, the chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Apparently Madigan thinks that to beat a billionaire, you gotta run a billionaire. As such, he’s been covertly trying to talk J. B. Pritzker or Christopher Kennedy—scions to their respective family fortunes—into challenging Rauner.
So far Pawar is the only Democrat to declare. Predictably the state’s Republican Party responded by denouncing Pawar as a tool of Madigan, even though they barely know each other. That’s their tactic, and they’re sticking with it.
Will Pawar succeed? If I had to bet money in Vegas, I’d say no candidate can win statewide on a platform calling for higher taxes—even if it’s just for the rich. But what do I know? I didn’t predict Pawar would win that first aldermanic campaign either.
If he pulls it off? Man, that would be an unexpected twist. Like Trump, Rauner’s the latest in a long line of Republicans who’ve been determined to destroy FDR’s legacy. It would only be fitting, therefore, if Pawar, a relatively unknown liberal alderman from the north side, could revive the principles of the New Deal to oust Rauner from office. v