Can Aftab Pureval Pop the Republican Machine’s Bubble?

Aftab Pureval
Aftab Pureval

Photograph by Annette Navarro

So what’s in a name, anyway?

If your name happens to be Aftab Karma Singh Pureval, it’s a source of pride in your immigrant parents—your father a college graduate from India whose first job in America was bagging groceries, your mother a refugee from Tibet who trekked thousands of miles through the snow-covered Himalayas to elude Chinese communists. But if you’ve decided on launching a life of elected public service in Cincinnati, a name like Aftab Pureval can be an obstacle of Himalayan proportions—a name that few residents can pronounce (AF-tab PER-uh-vuhl) much less recognize in the voting booth.

Despite the glaring moniker gap, Pureval, a 34-year-old Procter & Gamble attorney and former federal prosecutor, has chosen to take on one of the best-known political names in the county. As an underdog Democrat, he’s challenging Republican incumbent Tracy Winkler for the office of Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, the least understood but perhaps most pivotal post in the county’s system of justice. “It’s an uphill battle,” says Sean Comer, government relations director for Xavier University and a longtime observer of local politics. “Winkler not only has the family name, she’s had four years [in office] to build her brand.”

The clerk’s office is the oil that keeps the machinery of the courts running smoothly and fairly for judges, attorneys, plaintiffs, defendants, and the public at large. With 184 employees and a budget of $12.4 million, the office files, dockets, indexes, and preserves 1.6 million documents each year for civil, criminal, domestic relations, and appellate cases. As the local gatekeeper to justice, it sets the fee structure for the courts; serves summonses, warrants, and subpoenas; and makes available to the public some 34 million recorded documents. And in the digital age, it must develop and service the technology that keeps the whole system from imploding under its own weight.

It may be a down-ballot office without much political sex appeal, but Pureval, who has taken a six-month leave of absence from P&G, is campaigning for the post with the dedication of an argonaut pursuing the golden fleece. “When you’re the unknown, you have to work that much harder,” he says.

Aftab Pureval
Aftab Pureval

Photograph by Annette Navarro

For Pureval, a typical campaign day in late June starts with a breakfast meeting in Northside with trade union leaders, coffee downtown with a pair of nonprofit consultants, networking in Oakley at a meeting of the Greater Cincinnati Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, two hours of phone banking calls to potential donors, another hour personalizing thank-you letters, happy hour in Rookwood Commons with a group of P&G interns, and an evening fund-raiser at the Mt. Washington home of Greg Landsman, a major player in the Preschool Promise effort. By mid-summer, Pureval had already raised $210,000—more than any other Democratic challenger for the clerk’s position to date and three times the $70,000 raised by Winkler.

David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, calls Pureval bright, articulate, charismatic—“one of our rising young stars.” Landsman, a friend and political mentor of Pureval’s, says he is “naturally kind and empathetic.”

“He has the tools to win this race,” says Democratic political consultant Paul DeMarco. “All you have to do is hear him.”

Pureval’s stump speech—part family history, part comedy routine, part reformist broadside—seldom fails to captivate a receptive Democratic audience.

“I often get quacked at because people think it’s funny to call me Aflac,” Pureval tells about 30 or so of the party faithful packed into Landsman’s home. Pureval waits just long enough for the laughter to subside before adding: “Bark or moo at me, I don’t care, as long as you remember my name is Aftab.”

Pureval tells how his refugee mother made it to college in India, met his father, and together the couple decided to seek a better life in America. “So my dad looked at a map of the country, from sea to shining sea, from New York to California, and he chose…Beavercreek, Ohio.”

He ticks off his résumé. He went from Beavercreek public schools to the honors program at Ohio State, where he was elected student body president. Then to the University of Cincinnati for law school, volunteering at Legal Aid to represent battered, impoverished women. From there it was on to D.C. to work for a large anti-trust firm, where he earned its pro-bono award for assisting abused immigrants. Homesick, he realized, “I’m an Ohio guy,” and returned to Cincinnati to serve as an unpaid Special Assistant to the U.S. Attorney, helping bust gun, drug, and child pornography rings. A year later, a college friend recruited him to P&G.

“I walk through my educational pedigree and my professional experience,” he tells his audience, “because the fundamental argument for our campaign and for our courts is that I am, without question, the most qualified candidate in this race.”

He points out that Hamilton County has some of the highest court fees in Ohio, higher than those in Cleveland or Columbus, without providing many of the same services. The list of what we don’t have is striking: no Wi-Fi access in the courtrooms, no online filing system for most of the courts, no online public access to court documents, no mobile-friendly website, and no full-time housing court to crack down on slumlords.

Higher fees and fewer services “tell me two things,” he says. “One, we’re running an inefficient court system and those inefficiencies are passed down to the taxpayer. But more importantly, more critically, we are pricing out people in our communities who need our courts the most.”

His refrain? “The courts should be the one venue where it doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like, or how much money you have. It should be the one venue where the playing field is absolutely equal.”

In Hamilton County, he says, party membership and family connections too often tip the scales of justice. “Put yourself in the shoes of a criminal defendant. You’re being prosecuted by someone”—Joe Deters—“whose brother”—Dennis Deters—“was appointed to the County Commission. You’re in front of a judge”—Robert C. Winkler—“whose sister-in-law is the clerk of court”—Tracy Winkler—“and she’s married to the probate judge”—Ralph “Ted” Winkler.

“It’s because of that people believe you need to have the right name to get a fair shake in our court system. Well, my name is Aftab and I’m not related to anybody.”

Tracy Winkler knows many, if not most, of her employees by name as she introduces a reporter during a July tour of her office operations in and around the Main Street courthouse. “I feel like I bring a nurturing and caring aspect to this job, almost like a mother,” she says. “And when you nurture and take care of your employees, they’re going to nurture and take care of the people we serve.”

Winkler has a lot of nurturing to do compared to other counties in Ohio. Her clerk’s office employs 60 percent more people than Cuyahoga County’s (184 to 115) while serving one-third fewer residents (800,000 to 1.3 million). (Winkler points out that 42 of her employees provide court security while Cuyahoga relies on its Sheriff’s Department.) Cuyahoga’s budget is $11.3 million for clerk of courts compared to Hamilton County’s $12.4 million.

Winkler’s first stop is at the records room on the third floor of the courthouse, where row after row of shelving is crammed with bright orange files. “Hopefully, in not too many years, you won’t be seeing these orange files,” she says. “A lot of this is already electronically stored. There were stacks and stacks of files sitting on the floor just waiting to be filed when I first got here.” That was in 2011. Winkler’s office has been working with software consultants since 2012 to eliminate paper storage and filing. She blames a lack of county funding for the slow transition. “Whatever equipment [the county commissioners] allow us to get comes from a few hundred thousand dollars out of a budget of $12 million,” she says. Cuyahoga devotes nearly $2 million to its case management technology. (Pureval believes budgetary constraints are no excuse. “Show me someone’s budget,” he says, “and I’ll show you their priorities.”)

Winkler defends her office against those who say its technology is “antiquated.” She says Hamilton County has the only customizable, agency-owned records software in the state—a system launched in 1992 when the county was a pioneer in computerized record keeping and web design. William Gallagher, a longtime Cincinnati criminal defense attorney and a founder of the Ohio Innocence Project, which has freed 15 wrongfully convicted prisoners since 2003, recalls the technology awards the clerk’s office earned in the early 1990s. But since then the system “has been stuck for the last four administrations,” he says. “Everyone else is moving in the right direction while they’re standing still.”

Winkler, who is 54 and has an associates degree in marketing, says she started her political career at age 17 working the polls. She married, raised three kids and, at the same time, volunteered for drug and prison rehabilitation efforts. In 2005, she won a seat as a Green Township trustee. The advantage of her married name, she says, draws from “years and years of people associating us with people who serve others.”

The county clerk of courts office has been a patronage plum for the Republican Party since at least the mid-1980s, says Xavier’s Comer. In a county that has 30 percent more registered Republicans than registered Democrats, a Republican is eight times more likely than a Democrat to find a job there. (A single Democrat holds a supervisory position as an office manager.) Either way, many of her employees are grateful for their jobs; 85 of them (and/or their relatives) had donated $5,320 to the Keep Tracy Winkler Clerk campaign as of June 1, according to Board of Election records. Interestingly, Winkler says she does none of the hiring for her office, in part because she often gets hit up for jobs by friends and acquaintances. “I learned very quickly that I don’t make the hiring decisions because it becomes too personal,” she says. She leaves it to her top three administrators, all of whom are registered Republicans. Unlike Pureval, Winkler does not believe that Cincinnati needs a full-time housing court, in part because it already has a part-time judge devoted to housing complaints. And anyway, she says, “I can’t start a housing court. [Pureval] can’t start a housing court. The judges within the system must make the decision to do that.”

Pureval says it’s the clerk of court’s responsibility “to point out inequities in the system and suggest solutions,” and that many community leaders have told him that Cincinnati needs a housing court, like those in Cleveland and Columbus, to battle negligent landlords and vacant homes. He’s not the only one who’s taken notice.

Kevin Wright, executive director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, notes that negligent landlords and vacant properties “lead to more litter, more fires, more police calls, and more crime.” Too often, slumlords in Cincinnati face multiple charges in separate courts heard by different judges—depending on whether the case involves a foreclosure, building code violation, or a tenant-landlord dispute—and thereby escape more serious consequences. Only a full-time housing court that handles all housing-related cases can identify multiple and repeat offenders and deal with them effectively. Says Wright: “That’s what I learned from studying Cleveland,” which has had a housing court for 35 years.

Bill Frost, president of Pleasant Ridge Community Council, says he has gotten the ear of several city council members who say they want to explore setting up a municipal housing court “but they’ve been diverted by other things.”

Whitney Whitis cringes whenever she hears comments about her boyfriend’s name “because he’s an all-American person.” She says Pureval’s favorite food is Marion’s pizza—an acquired taste in the Dayton area much the same way Skyline Chili appeals to Cincinnati natives. His favorite TV show? The Bachelorette. “He’s had the same experiences growing up as you and I,” Whitis says.

Perhaps no one had a better window on Pureval’s youth than Christy Lynn (“Chris”) Bertke, the mother of Zach Bertke, Pureval’s BFF since they raced Big Wheels in the cul de sac on Ashley Court in Beavercreek. Bertke’s window was, in fact, octagonal—built at her request into the mudroom of her ranch home so that she could keep an eye on Aftab, Zach, and the third member of what the neighboring families call “The Ashley Court Trio,” Amit Rattan. The three boys spent countless hours playing on the regulation-sized, fully-lighted basketball court in the Bertke’s driveway, sometimes on weekends until 2 in the morning.

What Bertke remembers best over the course of those 15 years—from overnights in her home to the “bazillion rides to games” in her Jeep Cherokee—“is that there was never a single fight.” Underlying the boys’ friendship, however, was a competitiveness that drove all three to succeed, Bertke says. In high school sports, Zach excelled in basketball like his father, Al Bertke, a former University of Dayton star; Amit, who won the national punt-pass-and-kick competition three times in a row, in football; and Aftab in soccer. The competition extended to the classroom as well, with Aftab voted senior class president, Amit nabbing valedictorian, and Zach named a National Merit Scholar. Today, Zach is a Columbus-based lawyer specializing in international mergers and Amit is a radiologist in Northern Kentucky. Aftab’s future is yet to be determined.

“Success in our household has always been defined by public service,” says Pureval, whose father Devinder often took him to volunteer in Dayton soup kitchens and to his Sikh temple to perform charity work. Pureval describes his father as a Renaissance man—a computer engineer and accomplished musician who dabbled in art and photography. He was challenged by epilepsy from a youthful motorcycle accident and cancer later in life. He died in 2007 at age 54 while Pureval was in law school. “I know it hit Aftab hard,” said Patrick Hayes, his section classmate at the time. “He wanted to use the pain and experience he was going through as a conduit to make a positive change in the world.”

Tim Burke, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, says it was Pureval who approached him about running for clerk, not vice versa. “It was a breath of fresh air that he wanted to take on the race,” Burke says. “And in this case, Aftab is a terrific candidate who has developed some great ideas on how to improve the office. Yes, he’s running against a Winkler, to be blunt, and the Winkler name is a very powerful name. But four years ago, [Democratic challenger] Pam Thomas came relatively close [losing to Winkler by 4 percent of the vote]. And not to take anything away from her, but Aftab already has raised more money and has more volunteers. It’s not impossible by any stretch of the imagination.”

At 9 p.m., after a long man-hug with Landsman, Pureval is ready for the drive home to O’Bryonville. He settles into the driver’s seat of his Jeep Cherokee, the floorboards awash in empty energy drinks, and sighs. He worries aloud whether his stump speech was effective that night, his one shot with one more audience.

“I can’t imagine spending this much time and energy just to get your name out there,” he says. “You have to believe in what you’re saying and what you’re running for. I do, because I know what it’s like not to fit in, to be an outsider in the system. And that has a lot to do with my name.”

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