Cincinnati mayoral candidate Aftab Pureval answered questions about some of the most pressing issues facing Cincinnati, including concerns about corruption at City Hall, affordable housing, policing and the city budget, among other topics.
Six people are running for mayor of Cincinnati in the May 4 primary, after which the field narrows to the top two vote-getters for the general election.
That group of five Democrats and one independent includes: Ohio Sen. Cecil Thomas, of Avondale; Cincinnati Councilman David Mann, of Clifton; Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval, of Clifton; retired Cincinnati firefighter Raffel Prophett, of Avondale; Businessman Gavi Begtrup, of Mount Lookout; and Najoli.
Q: Why are you running for mayor?
I love Cincinnati. But for families across our city, it’s been a challenging year with COVID-19, the economic downturn and corruption in City hall. Our city is in a tough spot right now, but that is exactly when Cincinnati shines. And right now, we need strong leadership in the mayor’s office to come out swinging and accomplish what I know we can. I’m running for mayor to lift up all of Cincinnati. Our city must continue to grow, but we have to be honest that the success of the last 10 years has not been felt in all 52 neighborhoods. Every person in Cincinnati matters, and our measure of success cannot just be how the wealthiest are doing. It’s not enough, therefore, to just grow. We need to grow equitably. We either take on the inequities in our justice, health care, housing and economic systems, or we fall short of what we can be. I believe I’m uniquely situated to lead us into the next decade given my track record of taking on corruption, reforming outdated bureaucratic systems and improving basic services. As Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, I ended the office’s nepotism and cronyism, expanded services and supported the most vulnerable among us with an award-winning Eviction Help Center. We invested in innovation while simultaneously saving taxpayers millions of dollars and giving money back to the county every year I’ve been in office. Together, I know we can move Cincinnati forward with creative solutions.
Q: What would be your top priorities as mayor?
My top priority is an economic recovery after COVID-19 that benefits all 52 neighborhoods. To make sure prosperity is shared in every corner of our city, we need to rebuild our economy after COVID and prioritize growing equitably. This means an economy with better wages, paid family leave and opportunities for people to start and grow small businesses. As mayor, I will prioritize recovering and rebuilding our economy so that all families can thrive. I will work to keep families in their homes, connect unemployed workers with in-demand jobs and direct funding to struggling restaurants. I will grow our economy by streamlining the process to start a business and attract new companies and skilled workers to Cincinnati. And I will fight to share prosperity more equitably by expanding Black businesses ownership and home ownership, reforming the city bidding process and taking on the racial health disparities of COVID-19. We also need to continue to reform and improve our police department and invest in public
safety so every neighborhood is safe. And we need to improve access to affordable housing and basic services like public transportation to get families back on their feet.
I’m not going to promise that we can do this overnight. It is going to take time, and it is going to take all of us. But with a shared commitment to executing on our values, I know we can get it done.
Q: Corruption at City Hall is front and center. Do you think the reforms currently taking place after the indictments of three sitting council members are enough? If not, what more needs to happen in your opinion?
Corruption is a massive problem holding our city back from what it could be. While I applaud the task force that the mayor has put together, and the charter amendments supported by Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman and Councilwoman Betsy Sunderman, we have to do more. I look forward to the recommendations from the task force, and Sunderman and Smitherman’s proposals are a strong start, but those reforms are reactive – changing the process for responding to corruption after it has occurred. What I think we should be laser-focused on is preventing corruption. The best way to do that is to increase transparency. Right now, our ethics disclosures for local elected officials do not provide enough information to hold our elected officials accountable for relationships with people who might have business in front of the city. This is true for both gifts and salaries. The good news is that we already have a
model in Ohio; we don’t have to recreate the wheel. The state legislature in Ohio has much more rigorous ethical reporting standards. The first thing we should do to drive more transparency and prevent ethical violations is to raise our ethical standards to meet those of the state legislature. This is a Day One action item for my administration, and it’s a very distinct and simple way to provide more transparency in the process.
Q: Do you think the mayor should be involved in development deals? If so, to what extent?
We have unfortunately seen what happens when politicians ignore rules and guidelines. We need to be skeptical about any politician getting involved in the specifics of development deals. The good news is that the charter provides a strong framework for us to follow. We should empower the professionals working in City Hall to negotiate with developers. We are not always going to agree with these City Hall professionals, but when we disagree, it should be transparent and out in the open. We have to put an end to the culture of back-room deals. As mayor, it will be my responsibility to set the vision for the city – to set priorities with respect to growing our economy, developing our infrastructure and our small businesses. I will empower my team, and the city manager and their team, to act on that vision and execute on those goals. It will be my job to be aware of the patchwork of development, but it will not be my job to negotiate specific deals. That should be left to the professionals.
Q: Will you take money from developers? What assurances will you give the public if those donors/developers were to come before council seeking tax breaks that the process would be fair?
In every campaign I have run, the support I received was based on people who aligned with my values and my principles – not based on what I could do for them, transactionally, once elected. That will continue once I am mayor. I’m proud that we are running a grassroots campaign focused on listening to all 52 neighborhoods, talking to voters in all 52 neighborhoods and getting both volunteer and financial support in all 52 neighborhoods. And I’m proud of the fact that we have almost 1,000 individual contributions. One thing I want to make as clear as possible is that my responsibility as mayor will not be to involve myself in the specifics of development deals; we need to leave that up to the business professionals to execute on our vision. I will always be transparent with the people of Cincinnati. For example, I do not have a PAC. If you look at my campaign, you will know the money I have and where it came from – voters of
Cincinnati can rest assured that what they see is what they get. My decisions as mayor, and the values that I will prioritize, will be dictated by one question: What is in the best interest of Cincinnatians? That is the rubric I will follow, whether it’s a decision on legislation, board appointments or strategic planning for the future of our city.
Q: If council fails to take action on a forensic audit of past development projects, would you support one for every project in the pipeline?
I do support a third-party audit of projects in the pipeline right now. Corruption has to be rooted out – and while that’s vital to the perception of our city, it’s also vital to the health of our economy. If people don’t trust our process and our leaders in City Hall, they aren’t going to feel comfortable investing here, moving here, staying here or raising their families here. Getting this right is critically important for the future of our city. We have to make sure that the deals currently in the pipeline are totally above board. Voters in our city and our region deserve that level of transparency and peace of mind. Hopefully, we do not find any evidence of corruption, but the best-case scenario is that we receive much-needed recommendations for how we can be better. A third-party forensic audit is a commonsense process improvement opportunity and a necessary step in our anti-corruption measures.
Q: Do you support the affordable housing charter amendment? Why or why not? If not, what is your plan to address the affordable housing shortage in the city?
I do not support the affordable housing charter amendment, but I do support prioritizing affordable housing. I empathize with the frustration of those who do support the charter amendment, because the truth of the matter is our city has not had a comprehensive approach to affordable housing. It has not been a priority. We need to get this issue right. Every day in the Hamilton County Courthouse, I see the devastating effects of not having an affordable housing strategy in Eviction Court. I see parents with small children being rendered homeless because they cannot afford their rent. This happens every day in Hamilton County, and it unfortunately disproportionately affects Black mothers. It is absolutely critical that we bring everyone to the table and prioritize affordable housing. First, we need to fund the affordable housing trust fund. However, relying entirely on the city’s general fund is a missed opportunity. We have to leverage city dollars in order to incentivize our institutional philanthropies and our Fortune 500 companies to invest in the trust fund. We also have to build an infrastructure that puts the city in the best possible position to win grants from the federal government, whether it be from the administration or from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But we cannot stop there. A comprehensive plan will also require a review of the city’s development incentives like TIFF, tax abatements and VITICA to ensure that we are not only incentivizing growth but also incentivizing equity. And finally, we need a real commitment to tenants’ rights. We need a housing court to hold bad landlords accountable and support tenants and homeowners who want to grow with their neighborhoods. And we have to balance the playing field in Eviction Court by working to ensure greater access to lawyers and legal services for tenants who cannot afford representation. For too long our city has not been committed to affordable housing. If I’m elected mayor, I will change that.
Q: What is one thing in the city budget that you would change?
The biggest thing in the budget that I would change is the process of how the budget is created. Right now, 95% of the budget gets baked in prior to the public having an opportunity to study it and respond. We need to actively seek out community engagement much earlier in the process. As mayor, I will be collaborative and transparent, reaching out to communities to get their feedback and an understanding of what’s important to them. The fact of the matter is, if you show me your budget, I will show you your values and priorities. My values and priorities have to come from the community, and that cannot happen on the one yard line. Community feedback needs to come at the very beginning of the process.
Q: Do you agree with defunding the police? If so, how would you change police spending?
COVID-19 has shone a light on the longstanding racial inequities in our society. In our housing, in our economic systems and in our justice system; systemic racism is real. You only need to look at the names Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Timothy Thomas. The names change every year, but the color never does. Black Americans feel the brunt of a system that leads to unjust results, and in some instances, the loss of life because of systemic biases. I do not support defunding the police, but I do support reforming and improving the police. And the great news is that here in Cincinnati, because of the landmark Collaborative Agreement, we have a framework to push us forward. In order to reform and improve the police so that every
single neighborhood is safe, we have to get back to the fundamentals of the Collaborative Agreement. Right now, the Citizen Complaint Authority is underfunded and understaffed. It can’t live up to its charge of being an independent and outside organization that investigates and holds our police department accountable. We need to fully fund that organization. We also need to do what we know works: making sure police officers are members of the communities they serve – engaging in community policing and being visible. Finally, we need to make sure we’re using our resources efficiently and intelligently by reforming our 911 process. Right now, 911 is only helpful if you are on fire or if your life is in danger. We have to take action on this by making sure police officers are only responding to issues they are trained for and where they can help – and when they’re not, we need to send unarmed and specifically-trained professionals. These are the ways we will continue to reform and improve our justice system. It’s not just important for our Black and brown communities; it’s important for all
Q: If you ever hire a new city manager, will you do a professional search?
I am no stranger to professionalizing an organization. Before I took over the Clerk of Courts office, it was rife with patronage and nepotism. When you were applying for a job, it mattered who you supported in the last election, where you lived and who you were related to. We changed that. We drove a professional recruiting and hiring process that is now transparent and fair. Jobs are posted, candidates get a telephone screening interview and every interviewed candidate is asked the same questions. Based on your resume, your interview and the needs of our organization, we make a hiring decision. That same approach needs to be applied at City Hall in all of our hiring, including in the hiring of a professional city manager. I will direct a transparent and objective professional search to find the best person for the job, because Cincinnati deserves no less than that.
Q: Should the city manager be professionally credentialed? The last three haven’t been.
Our city has seen decades of success and national recognition for our city manager form of government. We should respect the unique balance we have, but we should also make our search for a city manager as professional as possible. I want the best person for the job, and our city manager search will reflect that.
Q: Police Chief Eliot Isaac is retiring this year. Do you think the current mayor and city manager should wait to choose a replacement and let the new administration do it?
Yes, the current mayor and city manager should wait. The Chief of Police is one of the most important members of our city government, and it only makes sense that the new administration has a say in the future of the Cincinnati Police Department.
Thomas: I would highly recommend that the current mayor and city manager should only appoint an interim chief and should allow the incoming mayor and city manager to appoint a chief.
Q: What would you do to bring back Downtown post-pandemic?
It has been a really tough year, and we’ve all struggled. It’s been a particularly devastating year for our live events industry, our small businesses and our restaurants. When we respond and recover, we have to be targeted, specifically supporting those industries and supporting all of our neighborhoods including the Central Business District. The downtown area is the engine that drives the economics of our entire region, so when we bounce back, we have to prioritize getting people back downtown. I fully support the incredible work the city is already doing to address this: expanding outdoor
dining, expanding outdoor entertainment districts and making the downtown area more
walkable. I will continue this important effort, but we have to do more. We need to see these same efforts in our neighborhood business districts. Small businesses in the 51 other neighborhoods need the same creative approaches. Additionally, third-party delivery apps are crushing our local businesses. That local money should stay local: we should bring back the fee cap of 15%, at least in the short term, because it keeps
money in our local businesses and encourages people to return to our restaurants in-person. This is critical to lifting up our downtown and the residents who depend on it.
Finally, as mayor, I will use the bully pulpit to run a marketing campaign that lets the entire region know that Cincinnati is open for business. We need to encourage people to come back to the city and patronize our small businesses. That comprehensive approach is essential to lifting us out of COVID.
Q: What’s your one big idea for Cincinnati?
My one big idea for Cincinnati is Black ownership. Black ownership of homes, Black ownership of neighborhoods and Black ownership of businesses. In order for us to win the next decade, we must grow equitably, and we must be intentional about growth in Black and brown communities. We do this by continuing to grow the capacity of the Minority Business Accelerator, the African American Chamber and the Urban League. These organizations are trusted partners who provide capital to launch African American and women-owned small businesses and continue to provide capital as those businesses grow. We also need to reform the way the city provides contracts to minority and women-owned businesses. And we need to incentivize our Fortune 500 companies to work with our local businesses. Finally, we need a real commitment to affordable housing. If we can accomplish true Black ownership in homes, neighborhoods and businesses, our city will be positioned to win the next decade for everyone.