The next opportunity to vote for governor of Illinois is still 20 months away, but the campaign for the position is already well under way, and voters in the South Suburbs had a chance Sunday, March 5, to meet one of the four declared Democratic candidates.
Ameya Pawar, currently serving as alderman for Chicago's 47th Ward, outlined his platform and answered questions from the audience of about 60 people at a forum hosted at the Flossmoor Community House by the local chapter of Action for a Better Tomorrow.
Pawar began by asserting his progressive credentials, invoking President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal policies of the 1930s as an inspiration for his positions.
"We're proposing a New Deal for Illinois," he said. "I believe in social justice. I believe in equity. I believe in fairness. I also believe that we have to stop fighting over scraps."
He described four main planks of his campaign.
- Reconfigure the state's public education funding formula. He said the dependence on property taxes to fund education perpetuates inequities in the system. He said simply dividing state funding differently would be inadequate. "The pie cannot be cut up any differently because then you end up with winners and losers, and that's why you end up with districts pitted against each other," he said. "The pie has to be bigger. That means progressive revenue. That means the wealthy have to pay their fair share."
- Provide universal childcare. He said childcare costs can force people out of the workforce, especially women and people in poverty. He proposes offering childcare subsidies for people who make $75,000 or less.
- Create a jobs and capital program. He noted this element of his plan would most resemble FDR's New Deal, with investments in physical infrastructure ― water systems, schools, roads, bridges and parks ― and in the arts.
- Reform the criminal justice system. He noted that people in povery or with mental illness and substance abuse problems too often end up in prison. He said it costs less and serves communities better to shift the focus from incarceration to treatment and support.
- He acknowledged that his plans would cost money. He said he favors generating more revenue by replacing the state's flat income tax with a progressive income tax system.
"All the things I propose are investments in communities," he said.
Pawar said in addition to the New Deal's infrastructures that put people back to work, he admired FDR's ability to build broad coalitions to work on the nation's problems.
Building coalitions could be a big challenge. If elected, Pawar would take the helm of a state government that is plagued by daunting financial problems and a stubborn partisan stalemate over how to solve those problems.
He acknowledged he doesn't currently have a large campaign organization, but he outlined a grassroots strategy for building that coalition. He noted that when he ran for alderman, he didn't have enough money to purchase a database with information about voters' party preferences, so he resorted to a campaigning tradition.
"I just knocked on every door," he said, noting that he plans to expand that strategy in his run for governor, planning to visit all 102 counties in the state. "What I learned is that you don't write people off based on who they voted for in the last election. There's value in going and facing people regardless of whether they agree with you or not."
After summarizing his platform, Pawar took questions from the audience. Issues included education funding, pension reform, environmental policy, healthcare, property taxes, gerrymandering, immigration and how to deal with "inflexible" politicians in Springfield.
In response to the question about navigating a divisive political environment, Pawar said he views diplomacy as key to good governance.
"You don't turn the leadership into cartoon characters and expect those people to come to the table," he said. "I don't think it makes sense to demonize people."
One woman asked how he would address the problem of people fleeing Illinois because of its high property tax rates.
He said he recently visited the Quad Cities area and noted that Davenport, Iowa, is thriving while the cities across the river in Illinois are struggling.
"It's not that there's some sort of tax haven. Iowa's top tax rate is triple ours," he said. "They tax fairly. There's stability and not a constant state of chaos. That's why people are going to Davenport."
Another questioner asked Pawar how he would respond to voters who might find his positions too progressive.
Pawar said he thinks most people are more concerned about having stable, prosperous communities than about party affiliation. He hopes his statewide travels will help him connect with people of all ideological stances.
"You have to be able to go out and say 'This is what I stand for, and this is what it means for the people of Illinois,'" he said. "It's important for people who are Republicans to see a Democrat who's going to talk about the issues and in some cases is going to have to take a beating for it because of things as a party that we've neglected or communities we've failed to recognize and take seriously."
In addition to Pawar, three other candidates have announced their intention to run for the Democratic nomination for governor, including Bob Daiber, Madison County regional superintendent of schools; Chris Kennedy, businessman and former chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees; and Alex Paterakis, civil engineer and business owner.
Annie Lawrence, an administrator of the ABT South Suburbs Chapter, said the group hopes to host more events that will provide voters a chance to meet candidates.
ABT was formed after the November 2016 election. The organization has more than 34,000 members statewide and 700 in the South Suburbs, Lawrence said.
The chapter's next general meeting will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 23, in the Glenwood-Lynwood Public Library, 19901 Stoney Island Ave. in Lynwood.
The chapter is also sponsoring a fundraising party at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 25, in the Flossmoor Community House, 847 Hutchison Road in Flossmoor. The event will benefit the South Suburban Family Shelter, an organization that helps victims of domestic violence.