There’s no governing going on, so the current fascination is with the Democrats who will try to unseat Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner next year.
Much has been made — on TV and in print — of the big guys with enough personal dough to have a chance to pummel the wealthy incumbent. That would be J.B. Pritzker and Chris Kennedy, they of the famous families. But the Democratic field blossoms by the day, with former federal prosecutor and state Rep. Scott Drury now exploring a run. (Cue the eye-rolling from establishment insiders who think Drury takes his former G-man persona a bit too seriously.)
And while the obsession is around Pritzker and Kennedy, I find myself much more intrigued by one of the other men who would make this his mission without big money.
Chicago Ald. Ameya Pawar is jumping in at age 36 with such a message of quiet optimism that it stopped me cold last week when I was busy fretting about our sorry state and its pathetic lack of leadership.
His first ad begins with a shot of his arm wrapped around his one-year-old daughter, Sigalit, as he prepares to load her and the family’s pit bull into the car.
“I live for family,” he says with calm conviction. “For my daughter, my wife. My father grew up in India with no running water, doing homework by candlelight. I grew up in Illinois. We’re not wealthy or famous. My student loans and child care cost more than my mortgage. But our family helps each other. We’re for each other. Illinois is like a family when we’re at our best.”
Violin strings swell in the background as a rainbow of smiling, diverse faces flash across the screen. There’s a shot of the pit bull, Baby, looking over at Pawar that gives you the sense the dog would be first in line to vote, if only animals could cast ballots.
“We’re in this together,” Pawar tells us. “When jobs leave a small town, that hurts Chicago. When city schools are denied the funding to create tomorrow’s workforce, that hurts the suburbs. When roads and bridges are crumbling, that hurts all of us. We can’t disconnect, and we don’t want to. We’re one state. One family.”
The ad is simplicity and grace. It addresses race, power and division, and, yet, tells us we all want the same things. It tells us Pawar just wants what we all wish for: a better home for our one family.
The ad, Pawar’s communications director Tom Elliott said, was produced by volunteers, with some guidance from veteran campaign consultant Joe Trippi.
For decades, politicians in Illinois have conquered by using division to get to a sum that will put them over the top on Election Day. Pawar isn’t immune to that. He readily will take a whack at Rauner for sowing division without pausing to note the irony.
Pawar touts a progressive agenda fashioned after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and the newer deal Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has working pretty well up north. Pawar pushes progressive income taxes, fairer trade, and a jobs and capital bill to create a bridge from manufacturing to automation so that, for instance, middle class truck drivers aren’t left without a ride when their jobs are replaced.
We can bring internet access to small towns, he says. Why not create jobs with lock and dam work, building up our river towns? Why not invest to make them tourist destinations? Why not put more into the wineries in Southern Illinois? Even long-abandoned Cairo can be something, he says.
Pawar says he doesn’t really know Democratic Party chair and Speaker Mike Madigan. He’s never been on the inside and doesn’t worry if others think that puts him at a disadvantage. He beat the Machine when he ran for alderman.
“When jobs leave a small town,” he says in the ad, “that hurts Chicago.” How, I asked, and how do you make that message work in a state that’s been divided by politicians for so long that many voters south of I-80 wish they could secede from the city.
That line in the ad comes directly from a time when Pawar was standing in a barn on a working farm near Champaign with former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and a group of others in Edgar’s first government Fellows class at the University of Illinois. Edgar paused, turned to the Chicagoans and told them to realize that what happens on LaSalle Street is dependent on what happens on that farm. He turned to the downstate Fellows and told them if they didn’t support Chicago’s infrastructure, then whatever was grown on the farm didn’t matter because it wasn’t going anywhere.
“We all have our visceral reactions to things,” Pawar said, “but then when you sit down to listen to people, you find we have things in common. Just sit down and listen. We’re not going to write people off based on who they voted for in the last election. We don’t care if a county is red or blue because, by the way, most of the state is red.”
Maybe the money, or the media’s obsession with it, will swamp Pawar. Or maybe this talk of being fiercely for family and one Illinois won’t fly in a state where it’s blue up north and fiery red south. It’ll be fascinating finding out.
“It’s important to go talk to people and to really listen to people,” Pawar said. “We have a lot more in common than we do apart.”
Madeleine Doubek is publisher of Reboot Illinois.Tweets by @csteditorials