The Bulldog’s second story, March 15, 2010, was about an upstart grad student who planned to challenge Eugene Schulter. Nearly 1,100 posts later, and The Bulldog can report that the upstart is your new alderman. Was it as much of an upset as other media outlets say? Ameya Pawar himself reports that he was surprised by the outcome. Was it a surprise? Today, in celebration of Pawar’s win and his elevation to alderman on Monday The Bulldog looks back to consider the campaign.
The early campaign: Late February 2010 to September 7, 2010
Ald. Eugene Schulter Credit: Jane Rickard
Early in the campaign Schulter looked like a shoo-in for another term. He was blessed with a ward organization that was large, organized and if not always effective, well financed. In addition Schulter had mastered the art of bringing home the pork. In meetings around the ward Schulter promised and delivered on millions of dollars of public projects. The largest, the $200 million bridge project for the Union Pacific, would tap into Federal stimulus money to create a new Ravenswood Station. The project would take years to complete and would require a specialized work force. However there were other projects too.
Looking back Schulter was playing old-time politics.
- In late March 2010, Schulter cut short a vacation to oppose a plan to cutback on street sweepers. But the street sweeper plan, forecast to save the city millions of dollars, refused to die despite its withdrawal by Mayor Richard Daley.
- In late July Schulter appeared with Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn when Quinn used a Ravenswood home as the backdrop to sign into law a seven percent property tax cap. At the signing Quinn noted Schulter’s work on behalf of property tax reform.
Aside from the new station for commuters, the bridge work would not provide significant benefits for a Ravenswood workforce not generally engaged in the specialized construction of the railroad bridges. However there were clear benefits for families with the new playgrounds and to businesses benefiting from the landscaping. Yet the financial crisis was creating questions about the administration of the TIF districts used to pay for much of the local projects while nationally the Tea Party and the Republican Party were addressing the proper role of government.
The strengths that Daley, Quinn and Schulter relied on for political support, identifying tax dollar projects, were eroding under financial and political pressure. It is still not clear how big a liability big spending will be both for the government and for some politicians. However what is clear is that the issue, at this point, mid-way through 2011, still has legs.
The middle campaign: September 7 to November 2
Ameya Pawar. Credit: Jane Rickard
The world turned upside down on September 7 with the unexpected withdrawal of Daley from the contest for mayor. Schulter accompanied Daley that evening to a German-American function at the Cultural Center. While Daley’s attitude was one at peace with his decision, Schulter’s face betrayed concern. The Bulldog talked to Pawar that day. He forecast that Daley’s decision wouldn’t change things in the 47th Ward. But in fact, the mayor’s decision had changed everything. Within days Schulter’s name was being listed as a possible contender as mayor. Schulter’s main asset was his large campaign fund. But this was a stronger asset than many candidates possessed. Schulter indicated soon enough that he was not interested in the post.
Schulter held an aldermanic campaign fundraiser shortly after he removed his name from consideration. Campaign financing reports indicate his aldermanic campaign raised a multiple of what Pawar had raised in the months previous. In fact, few voters were thinking of the municipal elections coming in February. The 2010 general election was still on the horizon. In the streets of Ravenswood The Bulldog would run into Pawar, walking a block in his quest. At this point it must have seemed a lonely and forgotten effort. Pawar, in an interview with The Bulldog last week said these days formed a foundation that served him well later in the campaign. People, he said, remembered him knocking on their door or knew he had met with neighbors. They were withholding their opinion, but watching developments. Two further developments may have been considered. The first, the city budget came up for consideration by the City Council prior to the General Election.
- In October Schulter announced he would oppose plans to cut budgets to chambers of commerce. In Chicago chambers of commerce receive support from the city. Direct support may vary from a few thousand dollars annually to tens of thousands. In addition, the chambers administer Special Service Areas, each providing municipal type services valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. As demonstrated by issues associated with the Logan Square farmers market recently, a local alderman can use the city support to reward or to punish chambers. Despite calls to cut the chambers, which would allow them to function as independent political entities, Schulter and the chambers rallied to oppose the cuts. Schulter went so far as to say he would not support any budget that cut chamber support.
- The City Inspector General issued a report detailing $243 million in estimated savings on Oct. 25.
- Fitch, a bond rating service, downgraded the city’s rating on Oct. 28.
- The Civic Federation released a criticism of the budget. That was followed by a delay in an $800 million city bond sale.
- Standard & Poor’s followed the lead of Fitch, also downgrading the city’s bonds. The downgrades have added to the cost of city borrowing and made borrowing more challenging.
- In early November Schulter voted for a budget that borrowed heavily from ‘rainy day’ funds created by the sale of the parking meter system. The budget was widely criticized for failing to address the structural deficit of the city. The $1.5 billion parking meter fund was spent to avoid addressing the structural issues. Critics described the situation as kicking the can down the road for the next mayor.
- Schulter would not comment to The Bulldog about the budget, but it appeared that he wouldn’t offer solutions to the fiscal crisis, and would defend his current aldermanic prerogatives against cost cutting.
The November General Election saw Illinois move against a Republican swing elsewhere. Here Democrats, with the exception of a US Senate candidate, generally won. The election left the Illinois Democratic Party in control of both chambers of the Statehouse and the governor’s office. In Cook County there was a push to elect independent Forrest Claypool, a Ravenswood resident, to the office of the Cook County Assessor. Schulter had thrown his hat in with Claypool, opposing the county party. Other Democratic Party organizations, notably Evanston, had also supported Claypool over Cook County Democratic boss Joe Berrios. Berrios’ victory was despite these objections and strong opposition by both the local daily newspapers.
November 3 through January 17
Matt Reichel. Credit: Steve Stearns
Schulter demonstrated the strength of the 47th Ward regular organization by filing 5,641 signatures. Even discounting the thousands of signatures collected by circulators living outside the Ward boundaries, Schulter gathered more signatures than collected by all other candidates running in the ward combined. Outside the ward however, it was clear there would be a change on City Council. Dissatisfaction with politics as usual and the promise of a new mayor combined to attract a large number of aldermanic candidates in many wards. Tom Jacks and Matt Reichel joined the hunt for the 47th Ward seat. On the final day of filing there was also a surprise filing: Tom O’Donnell. O’Donnell had been a circulator for Schulter. They were considered close. Schulter had supported O’Donnell to replace Larry McKeon. O’Donnell ran the Ravenswood Community Council for Schulter. In on-line discussions there were dark rumblings from persons claiming to be in the 47th Ward Democratic Party that ‘mean Gene’ would be receiving payback for slighting Berrios and Ed Kelly. The role of O’Donnell was a mystery. O’Donnell added to the mystery by turning aside all attempts to contact him. In late December it became clear that Schulter was seeking a position on the Cook County Board of Review. The position had come open when Berrios had taken the position of assessor. O’Donnell was covering the aldermanic opening if Schulter succeeded.
January 18 to the Coonley debate
Tom Jacks. Credit: Steve Stearns
Schulter’s announcement that he would withdraw from the aldermanic race was a move designed to convince Head Judge Tim Evans of how serious Schulter’s interest in the position was. O’Donnell’s administration of the RCC, the near financial collapse of the RCC, the fact that O’Donnell had only attended a single meeting of the SSA 31 in a two year period all came to the attention of the community January 25 when The Bulldog ran an article that examined O’Donnell’s community leadership claim. The Bulldog noted that O’Donnell lacked a door-to-door effort, lacked a phone, lacked a web site. “The heir apparent to Schulter is relying on the strength of the 47th Ward Democratic organization to get him elected,” we wrote. On January 26 the candidates appeared at Coonley School in a forum. It was the only forum or debate that featured all four candidates.
The Coonley debate
Tom O'Donnell. Credit: Jane Rickard
The Coonley debate is generally held to be the turning point in the campaign. Prior to the debate O’Donnell was raising money outside the ward. His supporters were confident of victory.
After the debate the momentum shifted to Pawar. The small gymnasium at Coonley was packed to standing room only. With each question, Jacks, Pawar and Reichel would ad-lib an answer. O’Donnell would leaf through a pad, placing it in front of his face and read the statement off the pad. In one case, regarding the Western Avenue South TIF it wasn’t clear O’Donnell understood the way TIFs work or what they could do. The ‘experienced community activist’ was turning out to be a dud who couldn’t explain what he’d do different after all his years of activism.
In many cases O’Donnell defended Schulter, despite the fact Schulter’s role wasn’t being questioned. Jacks answered one question, firing at O’Donnell about his qualifications. Jacks, without ever saying O’Donnell’s name, questioned the Chicago practice of political nepotism. On stage O’Donnell’s face grew red. Reichel tried to describe his plan to tax motorists, a toll based on congestion pricing. A similar system is used in Central London. Although he spoke eloquently, he described policies to address institutional racism and taxing upper class citizens to relieve the burden on poorer citizens. His largely white and upper middle class audience wasn’t interested.
Jacks thought’s about government were better received but still did not appear to have meat to them. It is fine to criticize political nepotism, but what policy does that point to at the Ward level? News likes conflict. Listen to the discussion of Donald Trump and you’ll understand that the colorful and quick quote provided on deadline is meat to the news media. In the months that The Bulldog had been writing about Pawar we’d learned that Pawar wasn’t a good quote. What we mean by that is Pawar is thoughtful. He listens to questions, considers them carefully and answers with care. At one point in the Coonley debate the candidates were asked about the Sweet Home Chicago ordinance. That proposal would use TIF funds for affordable housing. O’Donnell, Jacks and Reichel all supported the proposal. Pawar said he would study it. It could, he noted, create political support for TIFs and he felt the need for TIF reform was great. Other means could be found to fund affordable housing, he said.
It was a thoughtful answer to a complicated question. It may be at this point that our photographer took the picture which accompanies this post. It seems to capture a moment in time when the possibility of winning seemed real to Pawar.
The Coonley debate. Credit: Jane Rickard
The end of the campaign: January 27 to election day
Pawar notes that after the Coonley debate he saw a dramatic uptick in campaign financing. Three days after the debate The Bulldog laid out questions about O’Donnell’s bio. A day later The Bulldog laid out the case against the Ravenswood Community Council. And, like any historic Chicago election, this one had a blizzard. At The Bulldog, the efforts of the RCC to clear the sidewalks were chronicled. The snow removal in the Ravenswood Industrial Corridor were compared to similar areas on Rockwell and in the Addison Street Industrial Corridor. [The RCC, which O'Donnell led, was responsible for snow removal on sidewalks. The city, led by Schulter, was responsible for snow removal on ward streets.]
On-line there were complaints of streets that needed to be cleared and alleys piled high with snow. Pawar says that this was a period of intense social media communication. Stories from The Bulldog, but also from other media, were being exchanged by neighbors. And neighbors were meeting on the streets of Ravenswood, clearing our streets and freeing our cars and talking politics. Neighbors expressed anger that Schulter had selected O’Donnell without allowing neighbors input. More than once I heard “who does he think he is with this guy?” Well, Schulter thought he was the alderman.
On January 31 a small event seemed to sum up the hopelessness of the O’Donnell cause. That was the day Pete Leki endorsed Pawar. Leki is an environmental activist who maintains the Waters School Garden. A small community group is closely associated with Leki’s work, the Riverbank Neighbors. In addition Leki is close to another activist community, the Beyond Today Co-op. In the years I have known Leki he generally worked with Schulter. The Leki endorsement was considered key at The Bulldog. It showed a genuine interest in Pawar among Beyond Today, probably at Riverbank Neighbors and also among the education community. Undoubtedly, there was an element of the artistic community that closely followed-up on Leki’s endorsement too. And the endorsement broke with Leki’s tradition of working with Schulter. It was an endorsement that was a multiplier. It may have appeared small, but was in fact a much bigger event.
O’Donnell now made a new enemy. The Center Square Journal, a blog that also features events in the Ravenswood neighborhood announced O’Donnell was pulling out of its candidate forum. O’Donnell skipped a third forum at Lake View High School later that same week. On the last weekend of the campaign The Bulldog launched the last of its investigative posts on O’Donnell, noting he was under investigation for using Sheriffs department equipment for political purposes.
Ald. Ameya Pawar. Credit: Jane Rickard
On the morning of the election Pawar asked me what I thought his chances were. I had told him that I believed there was a 40 percent chance he would win outright, but that there was a only a small chance of O’Donnell winning outright. The day proved to be a lesson in getting out the vote. Winning in politics is often dependent on the basic things. GOTV, raising money and getting ballot access separate the professionals from the amateurs.
The 47th Ward Regular Democratic Party had proven itself by superior fundraising and an excellent ballot drive. Election day saw the regular organization with a superior GOTV effort. At many polling places there appeared to be no sign of Pawar, Jacks and Reichel. Despite that Pawar won. The election of this thoughtful man was an affirmation of neighbors using new and old social media. Neighbors talking while clearing a street of snow, trading e-mails and the decision of a neighborhood activist all added up to a win, with Pawar receiving as many votes as that enjoyed by Schulter in previous contests.
Old-time politics, and in particular a strong Get Out the Vote effort, were unable to overcome frustration at politics as usual. The ward organization once again showed that it is unable to deliver votes for anyone but Schulter. Would the result have been different if Schulter had run? Yes. Schulter, for all his weaknesses, wasn’t O’Donnell.