When he became the first Democratic governor candidate in January, North Side Ald. Ameya Pawar acknowledged he faced a big challenge in trying to corral progressive support to make up for his lack of significant money and name recognition.
On Thursday, Pawar abruptly became the first major-tier contender to pull the plug on his candidacy, telling supporters he lacked the campaign cash needed to fully organize and compete across Illinois compared to better-funded and wealthier rivals in the March 18 primary election.
Pawar’s decision to drop out speeds up the effort by the remaining candidates to try to tap support from the progressive wing of a Democratic Party split between backers of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ failed presidential bid and establishment supporters of defeated nominee Hillary Clinton.
The 47th Ward alderman’s departure also could sharpen the contest’s focus along the lines of wealth. The remaining major Democrats are billionaire investor and entrepreneur J.B. Pritzker; businessman Chris Kennedy, a member of the iconic and wealthy Massachusetts political family; and state Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston lawmaker who with Pawar had sought most diligently to compete for support from populist progressives.
“We gave it everything we had up until the very last moment but without the ability to scale (up the campaign) in a meaningful way, I feel I’d be doing a disservice to my staff, my volunteers and to this process,” said Pawar, who raised $850,000 including a $250,000 donation from his campaign manager’s father on Aug. 31.
That stands in contrast to the $28.2 million that Pritzker, an heir to the family-founded Hyatt Hotel fortune, has put into his self-funded campaign. Kennedy has raised $3.4 million, including more than $500,000 from himself. Biss has raised more than $1.8 million since announcing his candidacy March 20.
Biss and Kennedy hit that note in reacting to Pawar’s decision, taking an unnamed shot at Pritkzer’s money. “Good candidates are being pushed out of races by big money and insiders,” Biss said. Kennedy said “we should all be disappointed in a system where money is driving people out of politics and, in turn, silencing conversations that drive change.”
Pritzker did not mention money but credited Pawar’s campaign and noted, “Like me, Ameya advocated for increasing public school funding, paid family leave, and reforming our criminal justice system.”
Candidate wealth already has become an issue in the Democratic campaign where the winner likely will face Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has pumped tens of millions of dollars into his re-election campaign from his deep pockets as a private equity investor.
Though Biss was his chief competition for populist progressive support and may benefit from the withdrawal, Pawar said he had no plans to endorse a rival “at this moment” but “won’t rule it out” later. Pawar also said he will support the eventual Democratic nominee.
At the same time, Pawar, who is not seeking re-election to the City Council in 2019, said he believed he would “run for something again.” As far as a potential 2019 run for mayor and a possible challenge to Rahm Emanuel if the mayor seeks a third term, Pawar said: “I don’t know what’s next. I’m not going to rule anything out.”
For his part, Emanuel issued a statement praising Pawar as “a strong voice on the city council, not just for his ward but for Chicago.
“While he may have ended his bid for the governor’s office I have no doubt his commitment to public service and his commitment to using his voice to stand up for others will continue,” the statement read.
Pawar made combating institutional racism his campaign theme, accusing President Donald Trump and Rauner of pushing divisions among race, class and geographical lines to benefit their political base. Pawar tapped Tyrone Coleman, the African-American mayor of financially troubled Cairo at the southern tip of Illinois, to symbolize the need for unity in the state.
Pawar said he entered the race for governor by design to push the conversation of the Democratic nomination to progressive issues.
“By getting in the race first, we were able to lay the frame on a progressive income tax, we were able to talk about legalization of marijuana, talk about mass commutation of sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders, universal child care,” said Pawar, who added that “there isn’t a lot of daylight” between himself and his former rivals.
As he finishes his term as alderman, Pawar said he most immediately will be launching “One Illinois,” a political action committee to buttress movement toward progressive issues in Illinois. In addition to electing a progressive leader, he said, there needs to be a parallel track on the political action committee side.
“In order to pass a progressive income tax, in order to move forward on single payer (health care) or a large capital (public works construction) bill, what we need to do is recognize the politics that keep those things from happening,” said Pawar of creating the PAC.
Pawar’s withdrawal from the contest overshadowed an earlier event Thursday by Kennedy, who said as governor he would threaten railroads with potential state seizure of their rail yards and lines if they did not secure rail cars carrying firearms from theft.
Recounting three thefts of guns from rail cars at a Norfolk Southern Railway yard on the South Side between 2014 and 2016, Kennedy said he was putting the railroad, the state and the city “on notice.”
Kennedy said if he is elected, he would send in the Illinois State Police to secure the railroad’s cars and bill it for the expense. “I’ll explore options to go to court to seize their rail yard and seize their rail lines if they cannot be properly secured,” he said.
Asked by reporters if Illinois law provides government seizure of private property as a legal remedy, Kennedy said: “It very well may. I believe we can get a court to agree to that.”
Norfolk Southern so far has not commented on Kennedy’s proposal.