Many of you may already know Aftab Pureval, perhaps as a former AAAFund endorsee during his spirited run for Congress in the 2018 cycle. He hails from a fairly conservative region, which includes Cincinnati in southwestern Ohio. However, his electrifying campaign managed to reawaken a sluggish Democratic operation, including AAAFund’s own Tri-State chapter.
After a tough loss to a longtime incumbent, Aftab is running for reelection as the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts. He first made his name by raising attention to this oft-overlooked position that is, in reality, crucial to the proper functioning of the courts system. For decades, the seat was held by a conservative political family dynasty, until Aftab’s upset in 2016. He’s now campaigning to continue modernizing and reforming the office.
Here’s our interview below, lightly edited for clarity.
AM: Hey, it’s good to see you again! Thank you for making time for me, I won’t take up too much of it. We here at AAAFund are such big fans of yours and you were such a natural fit for the goal of our series, which is to highlight exciting, newer AAPI voices in battleground states.
AP: Sure, I’m always grateful for AAAFund’s support, and good to talk to you again too!
AM: So I know you must be busy, if not running your own campaign and doing your job – but apparently also working like crazy for other Democratic candidates in the area, according to Lisa [co-founder of AAAFund Tri-State Chapter]. I’ll just get right to it; you ran for the Clerk’s office in 2016, and then for Congress in 2018. Why are you running this time around?
AP: Yeah, I’m running for re-election as the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, which, for a lot of folks, they’ll be confused about this. You know, what is it, and why on earth is that an elected position? Well, for me, it comes down to justice and reform.
It’s been so inspiring; we’re marching, we’re trying to hold the police accountable for the murders of black and brown folks, we’re trying to hold judges accountable. But that all starts with access to the justice system. And that starts with the Clerk’s office.
When this office is antiquated, it restricts access to the whole system. I ran for this position in the first place, because I believe the courts are special. They’re a special place in a democracy and it’s a place where you should be able to get justice no matter who you are. In reality, in our courts, it matters what you look like, but it shouldn’t. I’m trying to do my part to uphold the courts and challenge courts to do better, and uphold those American ideals of justice.
AM: So, sorry to interrupt, but from what you’re saying, you don’t even really believe your office, the job you’re running for, should be an elected position?
AP: I mean it sounds crazy for me to say, and maybe bad politics, but yes! Why do we elect judges and prosecutors? They should be apolitical positions and go to the most qualified and the best person for the part. If politics has taught me anything, it’s that campaigns aren’t always won by the best person for the job or the one with the best ideals.
I believe that these positions should be apolitical and I’ve done my best to make the Clerk’s office apolitical as possible. It wasn’t like that when I found it; there was a big patronage factor to the office before. It’s not unionized there, so you could just hire your cronies and your friends, keep it all close, and it was like that for a hundred years. That’s just wrong. The only things in the courts that should matter are the facts and the law. To have it be otherwise, it erodes the public trust and faith in our justice system.
AM: That’s so great. I appreciate you talking a bit already about the marches and protests that have been going on, and it sounds like that’s been a source of inspiration for you. So, I want to ask, is there anyone else, something else that really inspires you to run this time?
AP: Well I can tell you that this time around, it’s a lot easier! This time, because 2016 was this really successful campaign, and we ran an inspiring campaign for Congress in ’18, I haven’t had to work so hard to introduce myself to folks. People know me now.
And you know, being Asian American, just touching on that ‘16 race for a moment — our [AAPI] community has made big strides in the West, and even in the South [regions in the country]. There are large AAPI communities who have been engaged over there, and their political power has been developed and invested in over the years, but there are simply fewer AAPIs in the Midwest. You know, we [here in southwestern Ohio] border Kentucky, so that should tell you something about our culture. We [AAPIs] are about 2-3% [of the population] in this area, and it’s not a majority-minority area by any means.
You have to work hard as an AAPI to break down stereotypes and overcome some latent, and yes, even overt, racism, and change people’s conceptions. You just have to deal with it and I took it head on. I tried to, in a self-deprecating way, a funny way — I told people I was proud of my heritage and taught people how to say my name at the same time. So by the time people come around to see me running for office, they see my name as a strength and not a ding.
And I haven’t been answering your question — that’s the politician I am now, I guess. So let me actually answer you now.
I’ve always been passionate about public service, even before knowing what “public service” was. My parents were immigrants, you know, and they were always educated about the news and issues of the day. We connected at the dinner table over the news, especially political news. We watched the news together at the end of the day. So I’ve always been engaged in things, even before knowing that’s what you should be doing. I just saw them working so hard and I was so proud when they earned their passports and citizenship, and when they got to go back to Asia just to visit.
So, in many ways, it was a natural path for me to get into public service, even if I didn’t always know what the steps were. But that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t dare to tell anyone though; maybe because of my Asian mentality or something, but I just couldn’t envision myself up there, on a stage, in person, with people seeing themselves led by me.
It wasn’t until Obama was elected, that I said, oh sh*t, here’s a biracial, child of immigrant, etc. It struck a chord with me, and instead of waiting around, I found that I believed I could win and jumped in.
And I’m not finished. There’s so much more work to do, you know. I see people marching in the streets, people desperate to make ends meet, desperate just to stay alive in a pandemic, while the President is trying to take away their healthcare.
It’s not just about me, but it’s about everyone. It’s important to fight. On a personal level, I’m a father now. So those movies involving kids, tv shows, ads, or whatever — I never understood what those people were doing, but now that I have a child, when I see a child that maybe could be in pain, I just lose my mind.
Having a child provides me even more with an incentive to make the world worthy for, and consistent with what I believe it could be, for my child. Trump just makes everything worse, right — the economy, our culture, all this other stuff. It’s really go-time now, it’s why we’ve all been activated to meet up and protest and stand up. So it’s not just for my life, or my child’s life, but for the legacy of this country.
AM: Yeah, totally. I’d love for you to talk a little more — you already kind of answered my next question, which was how your identity has shaped your race, but I know how white this area is, and there is that growing AAPI population, though. So what’s a policy you’re excited about or something that your office can implement that will benefit AAPIs?
AP: Hmm, can I talk about brown people in general? I’m looking at two critical issues with the Black and brown community in Hamilton County, Ohio suffering disproportionate effects in the justice and courts system. The first is Black and brown folks face longer sentences and the second is that there’s almost always a higher bond given to people in these communities.
And it’s not just unique to Hamilton County, we know that. Fundamentally, the justice system is broken and discriminatory. [While I’ve been in office] we’ve been working with the Bail Project, which is a national organization that chooses courts around the country to provide a fund for paying people that meet their criteria. They’ll pay their bonds and provide resources to help these folks meet their court dates.
So that’s been good work, but we need to come together to end cash bail. When we’re talking about systemic racism, you know, cash bail is like the personification of that. It leads to decisions about whether people should be free or not, based simply on whether they can pay enough or not. Right now, people are in jail for being poor, and I’m committed to ending that system.
Second, the Supreme Court in Ohio is also working on creating a sentencing database across all the counties in Ohio. Right now, the counties aren’t talking to each other. We’re all in siloes when it comes to sharing information. To understand if disparities are happening during sentencing, there needs to be a good database statewide.
Ally, when I first started at the Clerk’s office, you couldn’t even pay your speeding ticket online, it was that old. Now everything is online, but that just gives you a sense of how antiquated the government is. The federal government may or may not have the budget for these kinds of things, but our state governments are so starved for resources that IT is always the last thing to get resources.
And that has a real impact on communities of color, because technology can actually be a good way of leveling the playing field. If it takes time off work to pay your speeding ticket, then tech can play a huge role in reforming our justice systems. The Supreme Court is leading this effort and funding it too, so our part is to partner with them and provide them with the data.
AM: That’s super cool, I’m a nerd and I love that data stuff and it’s great that they’re undertaking this huge effort – it’ll be super interesting to see what they find out of this project. Ok, well like I said, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, so I just have one more question, which is why are you supporting the Biden-Harris ticket? And what would you say to someone who might not be excited to vote or aren’t sure?
AP: Well, obviously, I support the Biden-Harris ticket because I believe in their platform — I believe in reforming criminal justice, the healthcare system, economic and climate justice, and I believe that the Trump administration is, and has been, an existential threat to our democracy.
And the reason why I’m inspired by the Biden-Harris ticket is because it personifies progress. Kamala’s nomination as VP represents the future of the party and of our country, and what I love about this country.[This country is] designed to be unfinished. It’s constantly evolving and progressing, all to make a more perfect union. I mean, in the end, that perfection might be unattainable, but the process of pushing harder and further benefits us all. And they believe in that fundamental American truth as well. So I’m one hundred percent behind them and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure they’re elected in November.
That’s it? We’re done early? That’s gotta be a record, a first at least! Good talking to you, Ally!
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