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Ald. Pawar launches news outlet to promote ‘unity’ — and ‘disrupt’ conservatives

Ald. Ameya Pawar speaks with guests before a Democratic gubernatorial debate at Whitney Young High School in October, 2017. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

Ald. Ameya Pawar speaks with guests before a Democratic gubernatorial debate at Whitney Young High School in October, 2017. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

Nearly five months after dropping out of the race for governor, Chicago Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) is jumping into a new challenge — launching his own non-profit news outlet meant to be the “progressive response” to the conservative think tank, the Illinois Policy Institute.

The North Side alderman told the Sun-Times he plans to announce the launch of One Illinois on Wednesday, with the organization’s first batch of stories to focus on Illinois’ river towns and “the resilience of communities” — with a trip planned from Galena all the way to Cairo. Pawar said the first stories will go live shortly after the March 20 primary.

“Our goal here is — I don’t think it’s liberal or hyper liberal or far left to simply talk about investment or equity or fairness because if that is considered liberal or progressive, we are heading to a very scary place,” Pawar said.

“Illinois is not broken. Illinois is not a terrible place to live, despite what people say. There are a lot of things to see and a lot of things to do that are worth highlighting.”

Pawar, 37, said he’ll work to bring communities together “for economic development, for policies that support working families.”

“And that is not partisan,” Pawar said. “That is just rational.”

But one of the group’s goals is “disruption,” according to a pitch provided by One Illinois that singles out the Illinois Policy Institute.

“One Illinois has the opportunity to disrupt the marketplace of ideas by countering the IPI narrative with a contrary story line based on empathy and unity,” the group says. “One Illinois will disrupt the IPI market ownership by highlighting the human impact its policies have on voters and by putting a face on those who suffer the consequences.”

The Illinois Policy Institute, led by John Tillman, is a conservative and free-market think tank, which at one point had close ties with Gov. Bruce Rauner. The group has spent years developing a presence on its website, and also in newspaper editorials and on the radio. Many of the pro-business, anti-union proposals that made up the governor’s “Turnaround Agenda” had been advocated for years by the institute.

Pawar has a staff of six, and he’ll serve as president. Ted Cox, a former DNAInfo Chicago and Daily Herald reporter, is the group’s senior advisor and editor. And political fundraiser Katelynd Duncan — who helped to spearhead Illinois’ #metoo movement by both signing a letter and speaking out about harassment she’s endured — serves as senior adviser and co-founder.

Ted Cox. From Facebook.

Pawar has freelancers, a documentarian and a podcaster on board, and he’ll be featured as an “on-camera personality.” Pawar said he’s also planning live events such as town halls.

Content will be posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but One Illinois will also utilize organized labor, progressive advocacy groups and national groups to push out its stories. There’s also plans to buy TV ads to increase viewership, with content also being offered to local newspapers, TV and radio stations.

Pawar said he’s set up a partnership with the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the New America Foundation. He’s also calling his own donors and talking to foundations about additional partnerships.

He said he understands it’s hard to launch new media efforts: “Obviously everyone is trying to figure out how to make journalism sustainable. I think initially what we’re going to focus on is developing good content, building rapport and support and donors. Down the road we’d like a subscription model, but our goal is just to produce good content.”

Katelynd Duncan testified before an Illinois House committee in Chicago on a sexual harassment bill in October. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

But he said he sees a need for a positive narrative for the state, as a response to some far right content being read throughout the state and country.

“I think the Illinois Policy Institute and Breitbart [News Network], they profit off of disunity. They are not trying to bring people together or onto a common agenda or on moving the ball forward,” Pawar said. “They have a very hyper-partisan view of the world. They like to turn other communities into the other. But by turning people against one another, they get people angry. They divide people. It paves the way for the status quo, which is the type of politics that perpetuates income inequality where the working class are pitted against the working poor and the middle class are against the working class.”

Reached for comment, the Illinois Policy Institute said it has a “track record of uniting people and parties to pass policy solutions that improve Illinoisans’ lives.”

“For 15 years, the Illinois Policy Institute has been the state’s strongest voice for taxpayers. We’ve built an amazing policy, media and messaging organization that holds politicians of both parties accountable,” spokeswoman Hilary Gowins said in an email.

Pawar often echoed the same sentiments during his run for governor. He dropped out in October, saying he didn’t have the money to compete statewide against wealthy competitors. He’s also vowed not to run for a third-term as alderman — but he said then that he wasn’t ruling out running for another office.

The ties between Rauner and the Illinois Policy Institute were severed after the Republican governor hired, then quickly ousted, institute staffers last summer, and after Rauner signed a bill expanding public funding of abortion.

The Sun-Times and ProPublica Illinois earlier this month reported in an investigation that Tillman and his associates have moved millions of dollars around five interconnected nonprofits they run, steering money to for-profit ventures in which they have a stake.

Tillman has said the transactions were appropriate and transparent.

Pawar believes he’s got a head start on building a base with about 30,000 “progressive Illinoisans” who joined his Facebook page during his primary gubernatorial run.

“The goal is to highlight resilience, how we can come together to forge solutions,” Pawar said. “That’s what this is about.”