Aftab Pureval, mayor of Cincinnati, sees opportunity for building back the strength of our democracy through local offices. Hear how the leadership nuances in persuasion, collaboration, risk tolerance and more give him the opportunity and platform to improve the lives of Cincinnatians.
Trevor Brown 0:14e as inside legal counsel. In:
Aftab Pureval 1:37
Dean, I'm so so honored to be here. It's always a pleasure to be virtually at least back on campus. I really had a wonderful four years at Ohio State and so glad to be still connected to the university. So thanks for having me on.
Trevor Brown 1:50
Well go bucks. So tell us tell let's just start by talking about your your pathway to elected leadership. You know, your first run, at least as far as I know, was your run here at the University for undergraduate student government. But fundamentally, your your big office, your first one was the Hamilton County Clerk of courts. Why this office? Why'd you run?
Aftab Pureval 2:15ey chose Beavercreek, Ohio in:
Trevor Brown 6:24
So tell us, though, you said it's the main interface between, you know, the citizenry in the court system, but what is the what is the clerk of courts? And what does the office do?
Aftab Pureval 6:34
Well, if you're listening get buckled in, hopefully, you're nodding off to sleep, because this will put you entirely asleep. But the job I'm excited, the main job of the clerk is really the record keeper. For the county. You know, back in the day, a lot of folks were illiterate. And the clerk was one of the reasons why its elected position, frankly, is because it was a really powerful position, it was the one person in charge of all the records in the county, including the including the courts. And so maintaining those records, making sure that they're accessible, and that they're true and consistent and protected, is the main is the main job of the clerk and for your listeners. If you're thinking, you know, who cares about the clerk, this is a meaningless office just know this. Before William Henry Harrison could be sworn in, as our president could take the oath of office as the president, Dean, I swear to God, he had to step down, down as the Hamilton County Clerk of Court. So this is really going to start a lot of rumors here. But this is really a launching pad to the Oval Office. This is the this is the job in town.
Trevor Brown 7:41
Well, let's let's talk about that. It is a starting point, in some sense for one on a political career. So talk a little bit about that. You you chose to go to an office, as you just rightly said that people know very little about. So I imagine that created a space for you to develop some some skills, some some practice what it means to be an elected official. And maybe one day, move on to something bigger, which has already happened, you've moved on to the role of mayor. So just talk a little bit about that progression, in your mind, at least what you were thinking about in running for this particular office.
Aftab Pureval 8:23
Yeah, I'm self deprecating about it, but you really proud of my time there and learned and learned a lot. I mean, it's it's a massive operation. It's 200 employees with offices all around the county. And it has to work if it does not work. Worst case scenario, someone doesn't have access to, to issue bond or bail. They sit in jail, unjustly because of human error on our part. So it has to work and it has to work every single time. And when the pandemic hit, you know, there's nothing more essential than our courts. And so my employees didn't take any time off. It's not possible to work from home. They reported to work every single day. And so it is a it is a big management challenge. It's also just a big leadership challenge, because oftentimes, we're talking about folks who are underpaid and overworked and keeping them engaged and inspired. valuing their work, making them feel valued, was really difficult. The other aspect of my job is clerk of courts is definitely independently elected. But in many ways I work for the judges. And when I got elected, it was a massive upset. I mean, I was I'm the first Democrat in 100 years to be elected to the clerk of courts, which is a nice applause line in front of a Democratic Club. But in reality what that means is nobody wanted to work with me when I walked into that building because it was a building full of Republican judges. So I really had to learn how to work. My my skills of persuasion of bridge building of collaboration, because unless I made Relationships with Republican judges, I wouldn't have gotten anything done, because so much of the work of the clerk of courts is reliant on that. But I'm really glad I started there, because it gave me an opportunity to innovate and fail, right? Because there's so there's, there's such a disincentive, because of the scrutiny on government officials to try something new, to be risk tolerant. To innovate and part of innovation is failure, you have to fail in order to understand how to improve it. And so because I didn't start by running for Congress or running for mayor, but I started in a smaller, less scrutinized office, I was able to hone those skills, which really prepared me for a much bigger office and much more responsibility as mayor.Trevor Brown:
I want to I want to come back to those skills that you learned and how you're applying them as mayor. But I want to actually go back to what you said about, you know, bridge building and learning and building your collaboration with with some folks who were perhaps a little skeptical of you in this role. How did you do that? What you said you had to use your skills? Well, what were they and what was your approach? And what less what lessons can we all learn from from how you did that successfully?Aftab Pureval:
Well, look, it's fascinating. I rely a lot on the skills that I developed when one at Ohio State as student body president USG, I mean, you know, people aren't necessarily that complicated. We all have things that inspire us, that motivate us, we all have our goals. And my approach as as clerk was, was to really was was to really say this, look, look, judges, I can't do anything without partnership with you. We all know we've got to modernize this building, we all know that we've got that we've got to make sure that the playing field is equal. Those are, those are shared values that we have. Let's let's put all the rest of it aside, including credit, including ego, let's just work on this. And I'm going to have your back. During this process, I'm going to be a genuine partner. And when we succeed, I'm going to put you right up upfront. The perfect example of this is the Help Center. So the clerk's office was able to launch through buy in from the Municipal Court a physical office where anyone can come in and get free legal help immediately. This this didn't exist anywhere in the country. But we started in the clerk of courts office. Our help center isn't called the Hamilton county clerk of courts Help Center. It's not called the Aftab Pureval Help Center. It's called the Municipal Court Help Center. So we didn't even put our name on. And that was intentional. Because it's not the clerk of courts Help Center it really is the courthouse's Help Center. So small things like that. You can you can talk about bridge building and collaboration. But those kinds of intentional actions to share credit or to lift other people up in the process, I've found is really, really important. And those are skills that I learned, frankly, in student government that I still deploy today.Trevor Brown:
So now fast forward to now you're mayor, what what are some of those skills that you you practice maybe failed at as clerk of courts that are now proving to be really, really useful to you in another elected managerial role?Aftab Pureval:
Well, I mean, look, I think when you're clerk of courts, there's not as many people coming to you asking for things. Mayor, that changes overnight. And, and I learned a little bit about this in student government, by the way, you know, ran for student body president, Ohio State. So I've been a nerd for a very long time. Let me just put that up there. But But what I've really honed since being mayor, and leveraging the experiences I've had in the past, is the ability to stand to say no, and take really hard positions, on really, in some instances, unpopular issues. It's the mayor's job to it's really the true essence of leadership on the one person in our government or local government who's not worried about reelection in the next two or four years. I'm worried about where's the city going to be over the next 100 years? And what are the decisions that I'm making right now, that are that are going to put us, you know, put us on a path to be successful? And that time and disappointing people is really just part of the job, but learning how to say no, in a way that is not combative, in a way that's clear about why it's, whatever the ask is inconsistent with our larger priorities, or you know, deflecting that ask into a different ask that I can say yes to, you know, those are all those are all kind of the nuances of leadership and City Hall.Trevor Brown:
So it's not easy to say no, it's, especially for an elected official. So I can imagine that's a that's a hard task. But I've got to believe there are a lot harder things the scrutiny that one goes for through when one runs for office and the the nasty vitriol that you hear from, from constituents and perhaps even your your family hears. That's not fun. So with all of that, why, why What if you were talking to the next president of USG at Ohio State? What would be your what would be your pitch to them as to why to continue down that pathway? Why? Why is it why is it worth the slings and arrows of of public life to serve in a role like this?Aftab Pureval:
There's no job that there's no doubt that it's hard, right? But But I love my job so much, I get up in the morning, and my job description is to improve the lives of Cincinnatians. That's it. That's all I do all day long, every day that I'm in this office. And I can't imagine a job in the private sector, that gives me that kind of platform and opportunity, you know, in big and small ways to just make people's life easier to be their advocate. You know, just just reflecting on it. Now it is, it is such a huge and awesome responsibility that I try to live up to every single day. And but we all choose our professions for different reasons. But but for me, again, it comes back to my family. I mean, it is crazy that my mom and dad in their early 20s decided to move across the world, in a country where it was not their first language where they didn't know anybody where they didn't have anything, and build a life, the risks that took the courage that that took. And so it's really incumbent upon me to live a life that is worthy of that sacrifice. And for me, public service is that opportunity.Trevor Brown:
Well, as a as a resident, not of your city, but of Ohio, I want to thank you because I know having served under Senator Glenn here, it's not an easy job. And so those thank you for your for your willingness to take that on. Let's Let's get in the weeds about your specific role. Your your city is the birthplace of the city management form of government. And you just put a ballot initiative and I should say I should probably should have said this at the beginning. We're recording this just after November's election. And so you had a ballot measure up, tell us that was going to potentially make some changes to the system of government in Cincinnati. So give us a little bit of an education what what is the structure of the city of government governance in in Cincinnati, and what change Are you looking to make?Aftab Pureval:
We are really proud of our system of government here. We're really the leader in city meant the city manager form of government. And it was a response, you know, 100 years ago to the the boss system that was rampant in corruption here in Cincinnati. And we have that city manager lead form of government for a long time. Just a quick primer on on city manager forms of government. So in the city manager form of government, the mayor is more or less a figurehead, oftentimes elected from Council. But the city manager who's a professional who is appointed by council is the person who's in charge of all the employees and the budget. So really the CEO in a strong mayor form of government, which is the other kind the mayor is the city manager and the mayor, they have ultimate power in the executive. Obviously Council you know, sets the budgets etc. But all city employees report to the mayor the budget kind of effectuate the mayor effectuates the budget. So for a very long time, Cincinnati had a city manager form of government, but our experience from from from lacking that kind of one political figure that one leader was that we were we were just kind of stuck in the mud. We didn't have one person really pushing us forward setting the vision and executing against that vision. And so, more recently, over the last, I don't know, 10 or 15 years, we changed our city charter our constitution. So we're really unique in the country in that we are not a city manager form of government and we are not a strong mayor form of government. We are what's called a stronger Mayor form of government. So we're a little bit of a hybrid. So I have as mayor much more authority. For example, I hire and fire the city manager. I dictate Council's legislative agenda by having the power to put things on or off the calendar. I I submit the first draft of the budget to council and they kind of work off of that. And that and that form of government has really been successful in the short term, and really allowing us to still have a professional city staff, but also having the best of the strong mayor system where we have one leader who setting the vision and pushing us forward. But because we've been tinkering with our Constitution, there are unexpected, unexpected consequences, one of which was a aspect of the drafting of our Constitution, which opened the door unintentionally, for the mayor, to pocket veto pieces of legislation. So since I decide what comes on the calendar or not, if I so pleased, I just put a piece of legislation once it goes through committee into a drawer and not bring it up to the larger Council until the very end of the term. This has not really been used recently, but it had been used in the past. And, and because we've had, sadly, some recent corrupt, we all I thought it was an important change the constitution and an important step to re re gaining some of that trust back with our community. It's not every day you see a mayor standing up and saying take power away from me. But it is it is consistent with with our namesake Cincinnatus, who is a legendary figure a Roman general who had to fight back a an overtaking of Rome. And after he was he was done. Instead of continuing to lead. He gave power back to the people and went back home to be a farmer. So I don't know if that's legend or apocryphal. But that's that's who were named after. And there's some interesting consistency there.Trevor Brown:
So you've obviously never read Machiavelli's the prince, you're not you're not they're organizing behind the scenes to acquire power. You're getting rid of it.Aftab Pureval:
Yeah, right. Exactly.Trevor Brown:
How How is this system influenced your leadership style? What given what you've just described? Then? How do you approach your role as leader?Aftab Pureval:
Yeah, it's perfect. It's really set up well, for me specifically, I was like, we all have impostor syndrome. And when I was transitioning into being there, I was talking to one of my mentors, the most recent CEO of p&g, David Taylor. And I was saying to David, you know, I feel all this pressure to be the smartest guy in the room, to have all the answers to not look, you know, like, I like I wasn't on top of everything. And he gave me great advice. He was just like it is it is unrealistic and impossible for you to set that bar for yourself, you're just going to disappoint yourself, and those around you. In fact, it's more powerful for a leader to say I don't know, and to and to engage the team around him or her to to get to the best answer. And that really is my leadership style. I think I'm, I think I'm a litigator still at heart. So I love it when the best possible argument from both sides, kind of habit out. Ask questions. And and that usually leads me to the right decision. And so I'm really blessed to have an incredible team around me to have really strong administrators on the city staff, and then obviously, a council who's a true partner in achieving these goals.Trevor Brown:
So let's let's I'm glad you mentioned litigator this week, sort of last chapter of this conversation. And I wish we could talk for a lot longer, because there's a lot of things I want to ask you. But as I mentioned earlier, we're we're just coming to the end of an election. There are obviously some races and some things still up in the air. And by the time this airs, those will hopefully be resolved. But I think we know pretty much what the landscape looks like here in Ohio. And so I obviously you're a Democrat, you ran as one but I want you to, to go back to that litigator role of seeing both sides, and also your political science days as an undergrad and sort of step back and give us your estimation for here in Ohio. We now when you look at a map, urban areas that are gone blue, and rural areas have gone, gone red. And I guess another way to ask this is what do you think explains why cities by and large throughout Ohio are run by elected Democrats?Aftab Pureval:
It's a good it's a good question. Because, you know, you wouldn't you wouldn't mess when you think about our national politics. It's a bit of a it's a bit unusual, because so much of Ohio's economic power is because of the large employers in the cities. And so you would think that Republicans kind of stereotypically would be more aligned to that or that, you know, leaders in the statehouse would would would understand that. I think, I think a lot of it has to do with, with culture wars and unfair attacks, I think, I think there is, you know, cities are are polyglots, right? They attract people from all over the world, they are densely populated. And, and they, they necessarily need to accommodate different faiths, different languages, different political persuasions. And so it really is, you know, the best example of how diverse our country is. But with that comes comes some challenges, obviously, you know, crime is higher in densely populated areas, like cities, you know, taxes sometimes tend to be higher as a result of the the need to provide public services on such a large scale. But But I think, you know, so I think what you're seeing is, is a, a political divide, that's only being exacerbated by, you know, kind of toxic political messages that say, either cities are unsafe, or, you know, everyone outside of cities are racist, both both untrue, and unfair. And unfortunately, you know, it has been very effective for politicians to divide, and to make people scared. And I unfortunately, I think you'll, you're going to continue to see that. Now in Ohio, we have a unique situation, I genuinely believe, Dean that the two forces that are polluting, and in some instances really hurting our democracy is number one, the just unfettered amount of money that gets poured into these races, that has nothing to do with the districts, right, all these all these outside independent groups, just pouring millions and millions of dollars into these races. And then the second, you know, unfortunately, it's true is gerrymandering. We were talking briefly, the house had the House and Senate have historic Republican margins, I made the joke, I didn't realize it was possible for those margins to get even bigger for Republicans. But that's that is certainly not reflective of where of where the state is politically, and so we don't necessarily have truly representative or reflective government right now, which is and when you have such gerrymandered districts, the middle, you know, the kind of the the compromised kinds of candidates get get beaten by the extremes from both parties. And so it makes it really difficult to then govern.Trevor Brown:
So last question on building on some of the big themes you've identified, where are the opportunities for bridge building across the parties, and perhaps more importantly, in germane to your role between the State House and urban areas between cities and the state? Where Where do you think those opportunities for partnership are?Aftab Pureval:
Look, you know, I think I think traditionally it has been at the local level. And I say traditionally, because we have seen more and more political attacks, and opportunism around things like critical race theory. You know, the pandemic really laid bare a lot of the politics on our school board races. But But despite that recent trend, I still think these local political offices, whether they're county commissioner, or school board, Mayor or city council, gives us the best opportunity to have legitimate differences without the partisan toxicity. Part of the reason I love my job is because, yes, I'm a Democrat. And yes, I'm elected, but my issues really are nonpartisan. Yeah, this is a real job being mayor, right. Like if I don't plow the streets, and pick up the trash and fill the potholes, I'm gonna be voted out and rightly so. And there's no Republican or Democratic way to fill a pothole, you just got to get it done. Right. And so part of what I love about my job is people don't care about the spin or the obfuscation. They just want to see results from their local elected officials. And that really makes us as local electeds putting all that crap aside as well. And so I think there's a there's a huge opportunity to build back the strength of our democracy through these local offices. But I am somewhat worried that this this trend of toxicity is being exported from DC and infecting lower and lower levels of elected officials.Trevor Brown:
Well, just based on this conversation, you're doing an artful job above acknowledging it, but not wading into it. So thank you for a really engaged conversation. And again, as I said earlier, thank you for for your role as an elected leader. We all benefit from from value driven good hearted people that as you say, just the matter whether Democrats, Republicans, they just want to deliver value to their citizens. So on behalf on behalf of the Glenn College and the Ohio State University, we are proud of the good work you're doing so thank you.Aftab Pureval:
Thank you Dean for having me back and Go Bucks, Baby Go Bucks.