Northwestern staff member elected the first Asian-American alderman in Chicago history

Minjae Park

The Sun-Times called it a “surprise win.” A Huffington Post writer called it the “biggest upset of the Chicago elections.”

Ameya Pawar, a program assistant at Northwestern’s office of emergency management, made history on Tuesday when he was elected the first Asian-American alderman in Chicago history, defeating favorite Tom O’Donnell.Pawar narrowly avoided a runoff with 50.8 percent of the vote, while O’Donnell trailed with 43.5.

Even though he was the Chicago Tribune’s and Sun-Times’ endorsed candidate, Pawar, 30, didn’t expect to win – he didn’t even prepare an election-night party.

“I saw him later that election night and he genuinely didn’t think he was going to win,” said Tom Jacks, an NU student working towards a master’s degree in public policy and administration, who ran against Pawar.

Talking on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight the day after his win, Pawar said he received a congratulatory call from mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, who lives in Pawar’s ward, the day after the elections. Pawar could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

At NU, Pawarworks on creating a university-wide business continuity program, according to his campaign website.

Like the mayoral race, the 47th Ward aldermanic contest started off with a clear favorite: 36-year incumbent Gene Schulter.

Four challengers, including Jacks and Pawar, entered the contest, but Schulter, who won re-election in 2007 with 77 percent of the vote, had the upper hand. Then last month, Schulter dropped out of the race to apply unsuccessfully for the Cook County Board of Tax Review.

Schulter endorsed O’Donnell, special assistant to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who took on the mantle of favorite. Since then, the contest turned into O’Donnell versus the rest.

“(O’Donnell) was the anointed successor and I felt like the ward needed change, whether that would be me or someone else,” said Jacks, 24. “I have a lot of respect for (Ameya Pawar) and I’m glad that if it wasn’t me, it was him.”

The contrast between O’Donnell and the three contenders was clear. O’Donnell, who has served as president of a local council and board, was the only one of the four candidates alive when Schulter first won his City Council seat. He heavily outraised the other candidates but spent less time at public events meeting voters, according to the Welles Park Bulldog News.

During a candidates’ forum last week, Pawar, Jacks and Matt Reichel, the other candidate in the race, called out the absent O’Donnell.

“He believes he has this wrapped up and he doesn’t need to show up at this point,” Jacks said after the event. “That’s really disrespectful to the voters.”

Reichel called O’Donnell’s decision not to attend the event “smug.”

“I think what he’s doing is emblematic of Chicago politics,” Pawar said at the forum. “It’s arrogant. He doesn’t want to talk about the issues.”

Weeks before Election Day, O’Donnell’s campaign had yard signs planted in front of the ward’s early voting booth, alongside “Rahm for Mayor” signs. His campaign resources allowed him to call and mail voters multiple times. Jacks said he received at least 10 mailings and repeated robocalls from the O’Donnell campaign.

“I think it’s wrong when campaigns are just about money,” said Jacks, who ran his campaign out of his own pocket. “It shouldn’t be a race to the top for who can raise the most money. It should be a race to the top for how many people you’re engaging.”

Pawar began his campaign 15 months ago by going around the ward and knocking on doors.

“Ameya has physically hit, by himself, walking the ward the last couple of months, almost 85 percent of the households as of this past Friday, ” Pawar’s campaign manager Sam Yanover said in an interview earlier this month.

Yanover estimated there are 30,000 doors in the ward. The door-to-door strategy paid off at the polls.

Drawing a clear line between himself and his nine-term predecessor, Pawar promised he would limit himself to two terms if elected 47th Ward Alderman. He also promised to reduce his alderman salary to $60,000 from $110,000.

“He talked to voters,” Jacks said. “They knew that despite the literature and despite the other politician endorsing Mr. O’Donnell, Ameya was a very qualified candidate.”

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