Illinois Democrat Says Elect Him Governor and He’ll Commute All Low-Level Drug Sentences

Ameya Pawar plans to bring big changes to Illinois if elected.

Ameya Pawar speaking to a group of activists on July 22, 2017 after a peace march in Danville, Ill.
Ameya Pawar speaking to a group of activists on July 22, 2017 after a peace march in Danville, Ill. Photo: Steve Stearns/Ameya Pawar for Governor

Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, one of several Democrats vying for his party’s nomination to run for Illinois governor against incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner, doesn’t think the drug war was a failure.

“The war on drugs was a success,” he said in a speech on criminal justice reform given last month. “Because the war on drugs was never actually on drugs. It was against black people.”

Pawar used that address to explain the true history of the modern drug war, which former President Richard Nixon utilized to crack down on the anti-war left and African-Americans.

As part of his campaign, he’s vowing to end Illinois’s participation in that drug war through a battery of policies: making minor possession of controlled substances no longer a felony, legalizing and taxing marijuana, expanding addiction treatment, establishing a truth and reconciliation commission to air police-community grievances, and, most radically, using his commutation powers as governor to simply commute the sentences of nonviolent low-level drug offenders.

As the British Divided India, Rauner Divides Illinois

In a wide-ranging interview with The Intercept, Pawar put his views on politics into a larger context. His campaign targeting the drug war is part of a larger philosophy of fighting what he says is a divide-and-conquer approach by the nation’s elite to turn people of different races and classes against each other.

Pawar, who is the son of Indian immigrants who were active in the now-opposition Congress Party, was spurred to run partly by Gov. Rauner’s 2015 decision to pause the acceptance of Syrian refugees to the state.

“My background is in the connection between disaster and poverty policy; my wife used to run a refugee resettlement program, my first graduate internship in social work school was working with refugees,” he explained. “The idea that you would ban a group of people who literally walked across continents, who are fleeing persecution … is un-American. This is consistent with what Rauner has been doing in Illinois over the last years, which is pitting communities against one another, using the economic anxieties that exist in communities as sort of a catalyst to pit them against one another.”

He cited the example of Rauner going to poor, white communities in Illinois and complaining about the level of school funding in Chicago, a sort of racial dog whistle. “He’s done a very good job of dividing and ruling,” Pawar cited. “When I give my stump speech, I talk about how that is the same tactic the British used in India. You know, the British pit Hindus and Muslims against one another. Pit people against one another based on class and geography, caste … this is no different. Chicago versus downstate. Downstate versus Chicago. Black, white, brown against one another. All poor people fighting over scraps. So that’s why I jumped into the race. I’m going to call this stuff out.”

Pawar’s convictions about ending the divide-and-conquer strategy inform his views on the drug war. He pointed to the very different public policy response to the crack-cocaine epidemic, which was concentrated among African-Americans, and today’s opiate epidemic, which is concentrated among white Americans (black and brown people have also seen soaring rates of overdoses, though on a smaller scale).

“The opiate crisis means we need to provide treatment. Today we’re calling it a public health issue, but it was a public health issue 40 years ago,” he said.

He explained to The Intercept why he is willing to take the step of using commutations to get Illinois’s low-level, nonviolent drug offenders out of prison.

“If you were jailed for low-level drug offenses, nonviolent drug offenses, the basis for commutation is, well we are talking about preventative treatment, so why are we letting people whither away in jail for the same issues we are wiling to provide treatment for today?” he asked. “The drugs are different, but the underlying circumstances that led people to addiction, or created the addiction issue, is the same. So you can create a rubric and say, ‘Look, low-level drug offense, nonviolent, commute the sentences; create an automatic expungement program.’ You pair that with workforce development or social supports. That is still cheaper than 35 or 40 grand a year of jailing that person.”

Ameya Pawar shaking hands with Ed Butler from the Three Kings of Peace following a peace march in Danville, Ill. on July 22, 2017.

Ameya Pawar shaking hands with Ed Butler from the Three Kings of Peace following a peace march in Danville, Ill., on July 22, 2017.

Photo: Steve Stearns/Ameya Pawar for Governor

A New Deal For Illinois

Pawar’s platform is inspired by former President Franklin Roosevelt; the candidate calls it a “New Deal for Illinois.”

In addition to criminal justice reform, it has three other planks.

On education, Pawar backs an elected school board for the city of Chicago, which would reduce the power of Mayor Rahm Emanuel to call the shots (the mayor is actually a constituent of Pawar’s).

He is also proposing moving away from a property tax funding model for the state’s schools toward more progressive financing.

On child care and the social safety net, the candidate is proposing making access to child care universal and guaranteeing paid sick leave for workers. On jobs and infrastructure, Pawar is calling for a program modeled on the New Deal itself to put thousands of people to work.

Much of his approach to politics was informed by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “I saw politicians blaming poor people for poverty,” he said. Katrina and disaster relief formed the epicenter of much of his research in graduate school, which later led to a textbook he co-wrote with his wife.

“The one thing I kept coming back to in my research, and my book, and I looked at it from a disaster perspective, but it’s certainly true in all public policy in America is that policy in this country is based on deserving and undeserving people,” Pawar noted. “It starts with this idea that if we give and help poor people too much, they’ll become dependent on the system and then abuse the system. And that the best way to help people is to help those that ‘have worked the hardest.’ So they can create more jobs for everybody else. That frame needs to be broken. That’s why I got into politics.”

Running Against a Billionaire Opponent

The Democratic gubernatorial primary is being overshadowed by J.B. Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune who has now spent $21 million of his own money in the race.

“There’s always someone in life who has more money than you, and if you let those kinds of barriers determine whether you make decisions or not, that means your life is always in someone else’s hands,” Pawar said.

He pointed out that when he first ran for alderman, he spent $11,000 during his entire campaign against an opponent who spent six figures. “I think by being out there, hustling, talking to people, making up for the fact that I didn’t have money and replacing it with sweat, I put myself in a position to win,” Pawar said. “My thought here with this race is do our best to out-hustle them. We’re spending a lot of time in places that went for Trump. … I don’t feel it makes sense to write people off based on who they voted for in the last election, and I think ultimately if we’re going to stop the ugly rhetoric anywhere, we have to organize poor white people, black people, and brown people together. They need to see the commonality between their experiences.”

Top photo: Ameya Pawar speaking to a group of activists on July 22, 2017, after a peace march in Danville, Ill.

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