In a recent episode of the Model Majority Podcast (@modelmajorityp), its co-host Kevin Xu (@kevinsxu) interviewed Aftab Pureval (@AftabPureval), candidate for Congress in Ohio’s 1st district and current Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, where Aftab shared his upbringing as the son of Tibetan refugee, the challenge and dilemma of assimilation for Asian Americans, his unlikely electoral success in Ohio, his reason for running for Congress, and his love for Cincinnati’s Skyline Chili.
A transcript (edited for clarity) of their conversation is below. Click HERE to listen to the full episode.
KEVIN: All right everybody on today’s podcast, we are absolutely thrilled to have Aftab Pureval on the Model Majority Podcast. Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with Aftab he is currently serving as the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts in Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s in fact the very first Democrat to hold this office in more than 100 years. He is currently running for Congress in Ohio’s first congressional district. Aftab thank you so much for taking the time to join me on the Model Majority Podcast today.
AFTAB: Thank you so much for having me on. I’m a huge fan of podcasts and I have a pretty large districts, so I’m in the car a lot, so I love listening to a podcast while I’m traveling from one community to the next, so I’m thrilled. Thanks so much for having me.
KEVIN: Absolutely. We’re really glad you can be on this one, you know for your district’s constituents. Hopefully they get to hear this too! So we always like to start our conversation with our guest’s personal stories. So I love to get to know a little bit about where did you grow up, how did you grow up, what was your childhood like?
AFTAB: Yeah, so the blueprint of my story is probably best told by just starting with my name. My full name is Aftab Karma Singh Pureval. And it reflects my multi-cultural heritage. My name Aftab is actually a Persian name. it means “sunshine”, but no one in my family is Persian. I’m actually the son of a refugee. My mother and grandparents are from Tibet, and they were forced to flee. And so they made their way through the Himalayas, through Nepal, and into India, where my mom and my grandparents settled. She grew up as a refugee. Against all odds, she got an education. She made it to college in Delhi, where she met my dad, who’s from Punjab on the Indian side. The young couple got married in India, and they decided they wanted to come to the new world.
They wanted to come to the United States, so my dad looked at a map of our country and from sea to shining sea, from New York to California, this man literally could have gone anywhere, and he chose Beavercreek, Ohio! They immigrated in 1980. You know, they didn’t know anybody. They had no money. When I reflect back on the bravery, the courage that that must have taken, I’m just utterly blown away. I was born and raised in Beavercreek, Ohio, went to public schools. Then off to Ohio State, where I was actually the elected student body president. That was my first foray into politics. I moved down to Cincinnati, Ohio, to attend the UC College of Law, where I was part of the domestic violence clinic, representing battered women who couldn’t afford an attorney. And then I moved to D.C., where I worked at a large law firm for several years. But I got homesick.
I’m half Indian, half Tibetan. I look vaguely Hawaiian. I’m like a Rorschach Test for brown people. People have no idea what my ethnicity is. So I moved back to Cincinnati, and I served as a Special Assistant United States Attorney, working on federal felonies specifically crimes against children. And then in my most recent professional job, I was the global brand attorney for Oil of Olay, a Procter and Gamble skincare company. P&G is one of the biggest employers in Cincinnati, so as a P&G Oil of Olay attorney, I was basically a beauty attorney, which was ridiculous. And then I decided to run for the clerk of courts for the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, and that’s really kind of where my political career began.
KEVIN: We will definitely get into what you’re doing now and also your congressional run. But I actually want to dig a little deeper into your upbringing, which is just incredibly fascinating story. First of all, did you and your dad ever talk about why he chose Beavercreek of all the places he could’ve taken you guys to in the United States?
AFTAB: Yeah. So my family only knew one person in the country and he had spent time in Dayton, Ohio. So Beavercreek is a suburb of Dayton and there’s a large air force base, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and he had spent some time on the base as a civilian aeronautical engineer. So my dad had heard that it was a nice place to live. So you go to where you are aware of I suppose.
But you know I mentioned it earlier, but my my story is not unique. It really is the American story, and it’s particularly germane to your listeners. When I reflect back on that decision that my parents made when they were in their early 20s to pick up and move across the world, it really it’s…it’s just overwhelming, to put myself in their shoes, to think about what kind of fortitude that would take. But you know the story of America is that in one generation my family went from being refugees to now running for the United States Congress. And that story only happens in this country, and that’s why this race in 2018 for the soul of our country is just so critically important, because that story is getting harder and harder to believe in Donald Trump’s America.
KEVIN: Absolutely. And we’re definitely gonna get deep into that. But what personally fascinated me too is your Tibetan heritage. You know a lot of people in this country don’t really know much about Tibet. Maybe they saw like “7 Years In Tibet” with Brad Pitt or a documentary.
AFTAB: Yeah, Richard Gere is all anyone knows about.
KEVIN: Exactly. Could you kindly give us a quick topline about you know what is the cause of the refugee, the escape on your mom’s side to India from Tibet. What’s kind of the historical context of that?
AFTAB: Well I mean the Tibetan diaspora is really profound. When the Communist Chinese took over it really, frankly destroyed our community, destroyed our culture, attacked my family’s tradition and religion, and it was really catastrophic. The plight of our people is quite sad, which is why I’m so incredibly proud of the fact that I am the first Tibetan American to ever run for Congress. I’m incredibly proud of the fact that the Tibetan community all over the country is coming out in support and can be proud of one of their own standing up to the xenophobia that Trump has introduced into our national politics.
KEVIN: Now turning a bit to your current political career. Probably not a lot of people understand what the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts does?
KEVIN: So could you kind of walk us through what is that job? What is your day to day like? And of course what have you accomplished during your time there?
AFTAB: It’s about as glamorous as it sounds. Really bringing the A-listers onto your podcast.
AFTAB: You know three years ago, when I started thinking about running for office. I decided on running for the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts. And right off the bat, I had several real obstacles and challenges. First and foremost, as I’ve already made light of, literally no one cares or has even heard of the Clerk of Courts. I mean it’s just not relevant to most people’s lives, people outside the legal community. Number two, my opponent was an incredibly well-known and popular two-term Republican incumbent. Number three, Hamilton County, which is in southwestern Ohio, the biggest city is Cincinnati, tends traditionally to be a conservative or lean right county.
And then my final challenge, and I hope I can just speak plainly here, is I’m a Brown dude named Aftab right? So the AAPI community in southwestern Ohio, while it is growing at about 4 percent of the population, it’s certainly not a majority. So a lot of people told me that you have to have an Irish name, you have to have a strong ballot name in order to win. So when I would tell people I want to run for the Clerk of Courts, they would say: “Are you crazy? What is wrong with you? You’re going to run for this office no one’s ever heard of, against an opponent that can’t be beaten in conservative Hamilton County. And to do all that, you have to leave your job at P&G. What is wrong with you?” And that was just my mom.
AFTAB: I’m means there was a lot of skeptics. By the way, my mom is still hoping I make it to med school. I think your listeners will appreciate that. But I ran anyway. We ran as hard as we possibly could in the four corners of Hamilton County, in the progressive parts and the conservative parts and at the end of the day we won. And by winning, we became the first Democrat in over 100 years to be elected to the position. So no pressure right?
So a lot of what I talked about on the campaign trail was ending nepotism and ending patronage. I ran for the Clerk of Courts, because because I had been a Special Assistant United States attorney, because I was a lawyer in the private sector, I understood that our courts are special, that the one place, where it doesn’t matter what you look like, where you’re from or how much money you have, when you’re appearing before a judge or when you’re applying for a job, the only thing that should matter is your merits. It shouldn’t matter what school you go to or what your last name is.
And unfortunately at the Hamilton County Courthouse, often times that’s the only thing that matters. So to end that culture, I followed through on those promises. I fired the top leadership. I replaced them with folks who are qualified, who are diverse, who reflect the diversity of the communities that we’re serving. When I first started, and I’m about to get into the details of the clerk’s office, I hope you don’t lose half of your listeners here…
KEVIN: Everybody gets your sip of coffee, this is the really good stuff.
AFTAB: Haha, so when I first started, I’ve got about 200 or 220 employees whose starting salary in my office was 21,000 dollars, which is poverty wages for a family of four in Cincinnati. I mean it’s unconscionable, right? Our public servants working and living in poverty. So we change that. Now every single employee in my office is guaranteed a livable wage of at least 30,000 dollars. When I first started, we didn’t even have a maternity leave policy. So if you got pregnant you were forced to use FMLA or sick leave. Again, absolutely unconscionable. So now every single person in my office is guaranteed comprehensive paid family leave.
I’m very proud of that, not just maternity and paternity, but most importantly comprehensive family sick leave, because so many of my employees are taking care of elderly parents, and now they no longer have to make the decision between coming into work for fear of getting fired or sitting at their loved ones’ bedside. We protected our LGBTQ employees, so no matter whom you love, you can’t get fired. We invested in new technology. We launched a new web site, the first one in 20 years, and after doing all of that we still saved Hamilton County taxpayers nearly one million dollars. So you can have a progressive agenda and be fiscally responsible. So first Democrat in a hundred years, I would put up my record in just this short term that I’ve been in office against any of those Republicans.
KEVIN: And how long have you been serving in this position?
AFTAB: Yes, so I got elected in 2016, so I was sworn in January 1st of 2017. So I’ve been there just a little over a year.
KEVIN: And you know like after this unlikely victory to become the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, you decided to keep on running, for Congress. First of all, I guess just tell me and I’m sure you get this question a lot, why did you decide to take the next leap?
AFTAB: Yeah it was never intended to do this. This was never part of the plan. But as a young diverse candidate, I feel the fierce urgency of now to stand up to the misogyny and the xenophobia that has infected our national politics. I mean this is a uniquely perilous time in our country’s history. And when I see Donald Trump and my opponent Steve Chabot voting to take healthcare away from millions of Americans across our country and half a million Ohioans right here in our state, just so they can continue to rig the economy with a 1.5 trillion dollar hole in our deficit, to move a massive redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the top 1 percent of their corporations, their donors, and special interests.
Of course, people like me and people all across this country, people of common sense, people of conscience has to stand up and demand different leaders and different choices. So listen this is not, frankly not, an ideal time for me to run for Congress, but I felt I felt compelled, because all across my district, there are people who are genuinely scared. They’re scared about what tomorrow holds. They’re scared about what Washington D.C. is going to do to them. They’re scared that the future that they want for their children, that American dream, is becoming less and less of a possibility. So I like so many other people across the country were inspired to stand up and to say enough, and to change the course of our country.
KEVIN: And this is a good segway to my next topic. I love to get to know your district a little bit more, like you kind of mentioned a little bit about how terrible an idea it was for a guy named Aftab Pureval to run for really anything, where you live. So what is your district like? What’s the demographics? Key industries, besides P&G of course. Even maybe some of the interesting quirks or idiosyncrasies?
AFTAB: Yes, so incredibly proud of our first congressional district. It is the western part of Hamilton County, including the western half of the city of Cincinnati. It also encompasses all of Warren County which is a county just northeast of Hamilton County. It’s an incredibly proud district, proud of its history, proud of its heritage. A lot of just wonderful companies and industries are here, right here in Cincinnati, Ohio. We talked about Procter and Gamble. We also have our sister company, we’ve got Macy’s, we’ve got GE, so for a Midwestern city, we’re really blessed with a lot of wonderful companies, who take their corporate responsibility incredibly seriously.
We’re a fairly diverse community. I talked about the small, but growing AAPI community. We also have a small Hispanic American community, and obviously a very large and thriving African American community. But by and large our communities here in Hamilton County, in Warren County, are middle class families, who are working harder and harder and falling further and further behind. And so that’s why particularly the people in my district are so offended by what they see is clearly a rigged economic system, where the people are at the top continue to get richer and richer, while everyone else seems as if they’re running in place. And my opponent Steve Chabot has been in Congress for two decades and has very little to show for it. And the people in the first congressional districts, they see that, they know that, and they’re ready for change.
KEVIN: I bet it’s a district you know, if you have one representative like that has been there for 20 years, that’s 10 congressional terms, people probably get a little apathetic about people running against him and stuff like that. And there you are, showing up. People probably have a hard time even pronouncing your name. I’d love to learn about what’s been the campaign trail like for you? How do people react to you when you first how up at their door or at an event and be like: “Hey, my name is Aftab Pureval, running for Congress?”
AFTAB: You never know what kind of energy there is or what kind of response you’re going to get until you step off the sidelines and step into the arena. I’ve only been running for five weeks. I mean like, we just, we literally just launched. And in those five weeks, we’ve had over 400 people sign up to volunteer. We have over a thousand donors from across our district and across the country. We are raising the resources necessary to compete and to win and people all across the district, whether I’m at a fish fry or whether I’m at a high school basketball game, they’re all telling me the same thing. They care about health care, they care about taxes, they care about changing the toxicity and the brokenness of Washington D.C.
We’ve only been running for five weeks, and again my name is Aftab Pureval, an Asian American that was just elected to the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts. We have so much energy, so much momentum, that we were actually just placed by our national party as one of the top targets in the entire country–the only race on that list in the state of Ohio. So we’re off to an incredibly fast start, a lot of energy, lot of momentum, and a lot of people demanding change.
KEVIN: And what’s been kind of the most surprising thing you are seeing or hearing from your constituents during this five week campaign so far?
AFTAB: Just how united people are against the mean spiritedness, the cravenness of the Donald Trump White House. Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat or Independent, people will see just how dangerous the policies that he’s espousing are. People talk about the fact that it is just irresponsible, putting politics aside, it is just irresponsible to vote to take healthcare away from millions of Americans, with utterly no idea how you’re going to replace it.
Sometimes we get so focused on the horse race and who’s winning and who’s losing, all these process stories, that we forget why politics is so special and important, because it has the ability and you have the opportunity to make a real difference in real people’s lives. I meet so many people out on the campaign trail. One person in particular has really stayed with me. Her name is Katherine McGuire. She’s a woman in her early 60s living here in Cincinnati. She lost her job, so she lost her insurance, but she was covered because of the Obamacare expansion. And it’s a good thing because shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Literally at the time when Katherine needed her insurance the most, Donald Trump and Steve Chabot voted to take it away from her.
Whatever political affiliation you have, that frustrates people, that makes them angry, makes them believe that the leaders that they’re sending to Washington D.C. don’t have their back. And they are right. The people that we’ve sent there have had their chance. They’ve had their opportunities, and they have failed us over and over again. It’s our time now to get off the bench to step into the arena and to demand the change that we all know we so desperately need.
KEVIN: I kind of want to talk to you about Trump a little bit too. We brought him up several times, I mean how can you avoid it. And I have asked this question to other candidates before, and I would love to get your thought. Given just how incredible your background is, coming from India, from Tibet, settling down in the middle of our country. Do you think the things that Trump has done, his impact on you know the way we see our country, our multiculturalism that really made a lot of our stories possible. Do you think that is a temporary setback to our country’s long term trajectory? Or do you think given what you’ve seen, is already leaving to some permanent damages to our social fabric.
AFTAB: There is no doubt that he’s doing a lot of damage to our country. He’s attacking our democratic institutions, our courts, our judges. He’s now attacking our law enforcement. There’s no doubt that the legacy of Donald Trump will be characterized as hurting America. But we are a strong country. We are a special and unique place, because we believe that if you come to this country, and if you work hard at it, doesn’t matter what your name is, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, you have all the opportunities to create a future for yourself and for your children that was otherwise unrealistic.
And I don’t care what Donald Trump does, he can never touch that. He will never be able to change the true identity and the true uniqueness of our country. And I agree with what President Obama has told us that the arc of history always towards justice, paraphrasing MLK. And I think that’s true. And I think that’s why you see so many people energized and motivated to stand up and to run for Congress, to run for state houses, or to run for local offices like the Clerk of Courts, because Donald Trump has awakened a country that understands that their democratic institutions and priorities and values are under attack. And for the first time in a long time, America is fighting back.
KEVIN: And speaking of people running, there’s definitely been just a ton of energy from people of all backgrounds, up and down the ticket, local, state-level elections, can’t wait for 2020 and see how that will turn out as well. But do you have any kind of tips or advice or even war stories you want to share for other Asian American candidates or even aspiring candidates about how does the campaign works? What’s the best way to run, especially for districts that doesn’t have a huge AAPI population?
AFTAB: That’s a great question and that’s something that I really considered myself, because that scenario was what I was facing when I was running for the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts. And what I did was, I took what people perceived as my weaknesses, and I made them my strength. So instead of running away from my name, instead of renaming myself from Aftab to Adam or to Al or anglicizing my name in some way, which a lot of people suggested I do, instead of doing that, I made my name the most prominent, the most memorable thing about me. So I raised enough money to get on TV. And in my TV spots, every time I said my name, a big yellow duck puppet would jump up and say my name in the Aflac voice.
AFTAB: It certainly wasn’t dignified. But instead of running away from my name, I made it the central feature of my campaign. It was memorable. It was funny. It was accessible. It made people remember me as the duck guy. Everywhere I go now I get quacked at. But instead of running away from your heritage, instead of running away from your name, I would wear it proudly. I would think about how to connect with folks creatively, and I would most importantly be yourself. In the Asian American community, we’re confronted with the challenge of assimilation. I would never judge anyone on how they assimilate. If you want to change your name, you should do that. If that makes you feel comfortable and that’s the way you’ve chosen to assimilate, you should absolutely do that, but you should never lose track or lose sight of who you are, what you believe in, what your core values and principles are, and you should be ready to effectively communicate that.
KEVIN: Definitely. And have people been receptive of all of these you know very creative ways for you to really get to know them and communicate them. How do people react to a lot of these things?
AFTAB: I mean so I try to bring some energy and some fun to everything that we do. If I’m not having a good time, if I’m not enjoying myself then I’m quite confident no one else is either. So I try to be as laid back and entertaining and engageable and approachable as possible. So, yeah, you know it seems to work for me! No matter where I’ve been in my district, whether it’s a place where no one looks like me or whether it’s a place where I’m kind of surrounded by supporters, I’m the same person who’s saying the same thing. And that seems to work for me. But here’s the other thing about politics, it’s very much an art rather than a science. These tactics seemed to work for me, but I can’t begin to tell other candidates in other parts of the country running for all sorts of offices what you know the secret sauce is or the secret weapon. The only thing we know for sure is that you have to be genuine, and you have to be doing it for the right reasons, because it’s so incredibly hard if it’s a vanity project or something that’s less than the purest form of public service. You’re just going to be really miserable.
KEVIN: I mean a lot of people talk about not just in the political context, but in a lot of corporate and other professional context to be “authentic.” It is sort of like a buzz word almost that people throw out to give advice, but ultimately I think you’re really living it right now on the campaign trail, is to just be yourself and embrace whatever that is and wear it proudly. And you know see how people react because you never really know how people react anyways, so why weigh yourself down by changing your name from Aftab to Al or something like that.
AFTAB: Haha. Right. But I do want to re-emphasize that if it’s been your tradition to change your name and that makes you comfortable, it’s not for me to judge you. All I’m saying is you just have to be genuine to who you are. And if that does mean you feel more comfortable assimilating by changing your name, more power to you, because I do think it’s unfair for people to, from an arm’s length distance, see someone making decisions about how they honor their ethnicity and heritage and judge them, because particularly speaking for myself someone who’s half-Indian half-Tibetan, if you look at me it’s incredibly hard to tell what my ethnicity is. Growing up in Beavercreek, Ohio, I know you know the challenge and the insecurity that can provide. And so I think it is incredibly important for our community to support everyone, not just the ones we agree with and how they’ve assimilated but everyone, because everyone’s had a challenging story to break through.
KEVIN: Absolutely. So I want to end with a slightly more lighthearted, fun question. So you’ve been on the campaign trail for Congress for five weeks now, and I’m sure you have pretty long days, many events back to back, and a lot of times at least when I was working on campaigns you healthy habits kind of slip. So I want to get to know what is your campaign trail comfort food that gets you through the day?
AFTAB: Well, I mean, I’m so guilty of this. This happened last night. My fiance was very disappointed in me, but I got home after a really long day on the trail at about 11:00 p.m. And I picked up skyline. Skyline, people in southwest Ohio know what it is, but very few people outside of it know what it is. It’s Cincinnati style chili. It’s an incredibly delicious, local treat, but it’s not necessarily that healthy you eat it a lot.
KEVIN: What goes into Skyline chili?
AFTAB: So it’s Cincinnati style chili, so it’s less hardy than southern or Texas style chili. It’s seasoned with a little bit of cinnamon, and it’s put over pasta noodles, and it’s topped with just a huge amount of cheese. So it’s incredibly delicious. But it should be eaten in moderation is what I’ll say about that. But that’s probably my biggest guilty pleasure.
KEVIN: That is awesome. Thank you so much for this awesomely inspiring conversation. We really appreciate your time being on the show. Where can people go to find out more about your campaign if they want to get involved somehow?
AFTAB: Yeah. AftabforOhio.com is our web site. Sign up for our update and you can contribute. Please give until it feels good! You can also catch us on Twitter which is under my name @aftabpureval, Facebook and Instagram under the same, Aftab Pureval.
KEVIN: That’s awesome. Thank you again for your time Aftab, and we wish you luck on the campaign trail, and would love to get you back on the show in the future.
AFTAB: Awesome. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
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