It's Probably A Matter Of When, Not If, Aftab Pureval Will Run For Higher Office

Jul 16, 2017

Let's be honest here.

Unless you are a practicing attorney or a judge, had you ever spent more than 10 seconds thinking about the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts office until a 34-year-old Democrat named Aftab Pureval seemingly appeared out of nowhere and won that office last November?

And took it away from a Republican Party that had held on to it for decades? And won it against a person with a formidable name in Hamilton County politics – Winkler, in this case, Tracy, wife of Probate Court Judge Ralph "Ted" Winkler?

Of course, you didn't spend much time thinking about it. Why would you?

Then along comes this guy, vowing to reform the office, make it more efficient and end the decades-long practice of it being a place where the Republican Party gave gainful employment to loyal party workers.

Last Tuesday, Pureval called a press conference at the courthouse to announce that he was raising the minimum wage in his office to $16 an hour, a "living wage;" and announced he was also offering comprehensive paid family leave to employees and made it clear he is banning discrimination against LGBTQ employees.

And, in a move that some other county elected officials might have considered somewhat cheeky, he called on other county departments to do the same.

OK. Those are all things he promised to do during the campaign against Winkler. He did them.

Aftab Pureval
Credit Bill Rinehart / WVXU

The amazing part, though, was that he did it in front of a roomful of print, radio, and TV reporters, in front of cameras from all four TV stations in town.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to get all the TV stations to come out to make video of a guy standing behind a lectern talking? When there may well have been car wrecks and fires and other mayhem out there that makes for better visuals?

Only once in a blue moon.

A county elected official with star power. You don't see that every day.

"There is no doubt, he is a star,'' said David Pepper, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman who is a former Cincinnati council member and Hamilton County commissioner.

"This is a guy who had a standing-room-only crowd for his swearing-in to office a few months ago,'' Pepper said. "Two years ago, most Democrats – most people in general – couldn't tell you what the clerk of courts office does. They know now."

In April, Pepper gave Pureval a chance to speak at the Ohio Democratic Party's annual Legacy Dinner, one of its prime fundraising events of the year.

"There were a whole bunch of statewide candidates who got up and spoke,'' Pepper said. "Aftab wowed the crowd; he stole the show."

At the age of 34, with everything he has going for him, it is natural to think that he has a higher ambition in politics than being clerk of courts.

Back in 1840, William Henry Harrison was Hamilton County Clerk of Courts when he was elected the ninth president of the United States. Of course, being clerk of courts wasn't Harrison's springboard to the presidency – he was a famous general who defeated Tecumseh's Shawnee forces at the Battle of Tippecanoe.

And it won't be Pureval's springboard to the White House either, even though he reaches the minimum age for the presidency – 35 – in September. There will be many rungs on the ladder to climb if he aims that high.

Aside from being young, good-looking, and an excellent and even inspiring speaker, he has a back story that is most interesting and will serve him well if (when, we should say) he decides to run for higher office.

His father was from India and his mother was a Tibetan refugee who survived a dangerous trek through the Himalayan mountains to escape the Chinese communists. She went to India, became a college student and, there, she met her husband to be.

His parents came to this country and settled in, of all places, Beavercreek, Ohio. Their son was born in Ohio (born in the U.S. -a qualification for the presidency).

The O'Bryonville resident went to Ohio State University and became the student body president – a door that often opens to a career in politics because of the contacts you make.

He earned his law degree at the University of Cincinnati and went to work for a time at a high-powered law firm in Washington, D.C., where he did pro bono work representing battered women. And, no doubt, made some more political contacts.

He came back to Cincinnati for a time to work as a special assistant U.S. attorney. When he was elected last fall, he was working for Procter & Gamble as the attorney for a billion-dollar brand.

"He's got a great life story to tell; he has a great resume,'' said Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke.

"He went in there and did what he said he was going to do, including firing the political hangers-on who had been in that office for decades,'' Burke said.

The local Republican Party leadership was not happy about seeing some of its stalwart supporters in the clerk's office being tossed out the door by this brash young Democrat.

Alex Triantafilou, the chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, acknowledged that there were some hard feelings but also acknowledges Pureval's political skills.

"He's a talented politician,'' Triantafilou said. "He's very young, very aggressive."

But, if Pureval tries to advance in politics, Triantafilou said the Democrat "may find that he veers a little too far to the left for the general public."

During the campaign, Pureval talked about what a horrible thing political patronage is. So it was not unexpected that soon after he took office, he would catch grief for hiring Chris Wagner, Tim Burke's son-in-law, as his chief compliance officer.

But the local GOP didn't put up much of a fuss – no one could argue with Wagner's qualifications.

For nine years, he had headed up the Ohio Attorney General's Cincinnati office, with 40 lawyers working under him and he did that job for both Democratic and Republican attorney generals.

Wagner, Pureval said, "is well respected by people from both parties" and took a substantial pay cut to join his office.

Talking to Pureval about whatever future plans he has in politics is no easy task for a reporter. He really doesn't want to talk about it. He knows that it does him no good whatsoever to speculate about his future.

So what you get is this:

"I have done everything that I told Hamilton County voters I would do,'' Pureval told WVXU. "We have kept our promises. We told people we would change things in this office and we did."

It matches with Pepper's advice to the young clerk of courts if he wants to move ahead in politics.

"Do exactly what you are doing," Pepper said. "Do the job you have and do it very, very well and the other things will fall into place. The other opportunities will flow from that."

What are the other opportunities?

The chances of him running for a statewide office in 2018 seem remote, given the fact that he just took office, but nothing can be discounted.

Some think that in 2020, instead of running again for clerk of courts, he might run for county prosecutor. Others think he would run for re-election and win; and then, in 2022, run for a statewide office or Congress from the safety of having a job to go back to should he lose.

One thing no one on the Democratic side thinks is that he will decide he wants to spend the next 30, 40 years in the clerk of courts office.

So what does he think?

"I don't think about it,'' he said. "I think about all the things I have done in this office and all the things I still want to do.

"A lot of people seem to have plans for me, I suppose,'' Pureval said. "I just plan on continuing to do my job."

So be it.

Did we mention that other attribute of a skilled politician?

Never tip your hand.