CINCINNATI — In three weeks, Aftab Pureval will be sworn in as the first Asian-American mayor in Cincinnati history, marking a new era for the city.
On Tuesday, Pureval attended a meeting at the White House for newly elected mayors. He also planned to meet with senior administration leaders on issues such as infrastructure.
“So much of the mayor’s office is built off of personality,” said Sean Comer, Xavier University’s director of government relations. “Aftab’s personality and John’s are totally different.”
Current Mayor John Cranley, who is known for his brash personality and intimate involvement in the governing of the city, will retire due to term limits. He is seeking the Democratic nomination for Ohio governor.
Pureval, 39, ran a campaign of change, innovation and expanding the city’s success to all residents. That message captured nearly 66 percent of voters.
WCPO sat down with Pureval in his Clifton home on Dec. 10 to learn more about his plans for the Queen City.
When did it really set in that you are the new mayor of Cincinnati?
You know, I’m not sure that it has. We’ve been working very hard since the night we got elected to hit the ground running. We’ve put together a professional transition team – the first time an incoming mayor has had the time to do that. We’ve been meeting weekly with Paula (Boggs-Muething), the current city manager, and outgoing Mayor John Cranley, who both have been so incredibly supportive and generous with their time and expertise. I’ve been so busy I’m not sure I’ve had time to reflect on being mayor.
So, people are starting to call you mayor?
Yes, mayor-elect. That’s quite the mouthful.
What does it feel like to hear that?
It’s both very exciting and, also, an awesome responsibility. The challenges that we face as a city, as a country, are in some ways really overwhelming. We’re still in the middle of this pandemic. We’re still learning more about the omicron variant, but that’s obviously concerning. We’ve got challenges with violence, with housing. But the undercurrent of what I saw on the campaign trail, and what I see right now in Cincinnati, is an undercurrent of hope and optimism.
Your weekly meetings with Paula and your time with John, what are those like? What are the topics and the questions?
The topics are all the important issues facing our community. First and foremost, talking about our economy. Talking about our budget. Talking about the fact that the pandemic has had a negative impact on our earnings tax revenue, which constitutes more than 70 percent of our basic services. Talking through MSD (Metropolitan Sewer District) and our relationship with the county. Talking about how we can put together the most competitive and persuasive and aggressive package to the federal government to get our fair share of the trillion-dollar infrastructure plan with the Brent Spence Bridge, with lead pipes in our water systems, with bridges and roads that are crumbling. So, there’s a lot of work to do.
What is your personality and how do you view the role of mayor?
The reason I have been able to lead different organizations is because I lead with collaboration. And I view the mayor’s office in the very same way … My two primary tools to be the leader of the city are one of conveying, and using my bully pulpit to prioritize and focus the city on, the most important issues facing our region and our community.
John was incredibly involved in the day-to-day of the city. Very detail-oriented. Is that Aftab?
Absolutely. I will be very engaged in the day-to-day operations of the city, ensuring that we’re driving results for our taxpayers. But I also want to empower the professionals who are in City Hall, particularly as it relates to development, to ensure they’re the ones leading those negotiations. They’re the ones vetting those projects. Now as mayor it will be my job to set vision, to set priorities, to set values, but it’s the professionals in City Hall who negotiate the specifics of contracts, bring development deals to the mayor and council once vetted, and then let us decide what we want to move forward on.
Anyone who has lived here for a long time understands the quiet power of the business community in Cincinnati. What is your relationship with business leaders?
My relationship is great. I’ve been reaching out to them and developing a relationship. Look, my path to being mayor was quite quick. I got into politics for the first time in 2016. Five years later I am mayor. That is fast for any city. That is warp speed for Cincinnati. So, whether it’s the business community or other communities, my relationships are strong but in many instances they’re new. I fully understand that I’ve got to do work, and they’ve got to do work, to strengthen that relationship.
That sort of old school business community, their top concern is that you are not going to pursue economic growth for the city …
We agree. I want our economy to grow. I want our city to grow. I’ve been very clear that cities our size are either growing or we’re dying. We’ve got to grow our population, grow our skyline, grow our tax base in order to have the resources necessary to do all of the things we want to do. I’m completely aligned on that growth. What I’ve also said is that when we grow, we have to make sure that racial equity stays in the center of the frame so that we’re growing all of our neighborhoods and we’re not creating this divide between winners and losers … Our city, despite our short-term growth and gains, we still suffer from segregation. Segregation by both race, and segregation of wealth. I think we have to grow, but as we grow, we have to lift everybody with us.
The affordable housing problem has been literally plaguing this city for decades. What specifically are you going to do about that?
Our city has grown, which is wonderful, but our housing supply has not grown with our population. And a lot of the things that we’re doing, like zoning, is artificially keeping our supply of housing down. We need more market-rate housing, more workforce housing, more affordable housing. We need housing across the board. And when we prohibit multifamily units in 70 percent of our city, that artificially drives up rent and it artificially drives up property taxes. We’ve got to review and reform those zonings to make sure that they make sense … But the second thing we’ve got to do is look at how we’re incentivizing residential growth. And right now, our tax abatement program for the residential side, I believe, is unfair. A vast majority of those tax breaks are concentrated in our wealthiest neighborhoods … We’ve got to be incentivizing growth with our tax abatements in Price Hill and Bond Hill, areas that want the economic activity, that want the density, but don’t have the tax incentives. I’m going to be looking to review and reform the tax abatement program as well.
Those tax abatements ,specifically in areas like Hyde Park and Mt. Lookout, I reported on that in back in 2015. Nothing has changed. Please forgive me for saying that I’ve heard this before.
Sure. But you haven’t heard it from me. And you haven’t heard it from the seven brand new council members who are coming in. We ran very clearly on affordable housing and housing supply. I have a track record of being elected to the Clerk of Courts office and taking immediate action and reforming that place to end corruption and nepotism. And that kind of direct immediate action is what I’m looking to do at City Hall.
There is hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars-worth of old infrastructure that the city has no plan to replace. What are you going to do about that?
That is a real challenge. The three significant challenges to our budget that we are facing right now are: the aging infrastructure and the fact that we’ve been kicking the can down the road on capital investment year after year after year; our pension program, and whether or not it is strong enough to move forward to take care of the commitments that we made to our aging employees; and then, finally, the work from home and the negative impact that will have on our earnings tax revenue … Those three challenges that we have to our city suggest to me two strategies to confront it. Number one, making sure that we are as efficient as we possibly can be in the city so that we’re maximizing all of our tax revenue ... But secondly, it’s even more of an impetus for our city to grow. That’s why my number one priority, and it will be very hard to move me off of this priority, is our economic recovery and our development as a city. We have to grow … There is this one shining light of optimism and that is this trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. It’s also important for us early on to work regionally, not competing with the county and Northern Kentucky, but getting everyone in a room, working collaboratively and thinking regionally about how our region can get the most money to address a lot of these challenges.
Is there anything the mayor can do about the shootings that literally happen daily in this city?
The root cause of the violence is poverty. In order to mitigate this violence and these shootings that we’ve seen, over the long term, we’ve got to create an economy, we’ve got to grow to have access to good-paying jobs and benefits so that people aren’t forced to make these impossible decisions between a low-wage, minimum-wage job or grabbing a gun and selling drugs or getting involved in a gang … Now that’s a long-term plan. In the short term, of course, there are things we can do. Making sure that law enforcement has the resources necessary to be focused on the priority – which is preventing violent crime and prosecuting violent crime … but a lot of the violence that we’re seeing in Cincinnati is not unique to Cincinnati and a lot of it is due to the pandemic….
When you look back over eight years on the tragedies that John Cranley has had to lead the city through (i.e., the deaths of a police officer, a public services worker, a firefighter, the mass shooting on Fountain Square, the pandemic, social unrest, and the City Council corruption arrests) … it is only a matter of time before you are going to have to deal with something. Are you prepared to do that?
Absolutely. Unfortunately, every mayor has to deal with tragedy. But it is my role to be the moral voice for the city. To help the city through whatever tragedy we are experiencing. To stand in the void and speak truth to power. But also have empathy and console as we lead. Of course, I’m not looking forward to any of those tragedies, but I feel fully prepared based on the experiences that I’ve had in the private, and also the public, sector, and my experience as a husband and a father, to lead our city through those difficult times.
Is there anything that scares you?
This is a big job. I’ve been very honest in the past that when people were approaching me to run, I said no. This is a very intimidating job. You know when you’re the mayor, you have to take very, very difficult stances on very, very difficult issues … That long list of tragedies that you listed off that just one mayor had to experience, of course that’s intimidating. Of course, I have a healthy respect for the job and for the awesome responsibility.
Is there anything I did not go over with you that you wanted to touch on?
I’m incredibly honored to be the first Asian-American mayor of Cincinnati, the first Asian-American mayor in the Midwest. It’s an awesome responsibility and it’s not lost on me that in just one generation my family went from being refugees to now the next mayor of Cincinnati. And that story really only happens right here in our community. I hope that that story is the future of our region. That people around the world know that Cincinnati is a place where, no matter what you look like or where you’re from, you can come, work hard and achieve your dreams. That’s exactly the opportunity that the people of Cincinnati have given me.
I think you could do a really good job when you travel to other places and sort of sell Cincinnati. I think that could be very persuasive. What would be the concrete result of that? What could that do for the city?
Grow it, right? We have incredible momentum right now on a national stage. Starting with our historic election. But also our USA-Mexico game that was just here. Our bid to be a host city for the FIFA World Cup. We have the best college football team in the country poised to win a national championship. We have the eyes of the country and the world on us right now. And it’s up to us to make a persuasive argument, to sell Cincinnati … Paula, Cincinnati is dope. And if you are not applying to UC or investing your dollars in Cincinnati, you are crazy. I am excited to tell that story around the country, and the result of that will be growing our city. Bringing employers here, bringing employees here, bringing young families here. To come here and, most importantly, to stay here.
**Some answers were shortened for brevity.