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Cincinnati: A New Mayor Preaches a New Beginning

Aftab Pureval is an ethnic trailblazer in a deeply segregated city. He comes into office with a long list of policy goals — many of which will not be easy to implement.

Aftab Pureval.jpg
Aftab Pureval, a Tibetan and mayor of Cincinnati. (Aftab Pureval/Facebook)
Cincinnati has a new mayor – a very different kind of mayor. On Nov. 2, 39-year-old Aftab Pureval not only became the city’s first Asian American chief executive, but also the first mayor of Tibetan ancestry in any large American city. Pureval defeated white City Councilman David Mann to win the mayoralty with 66 percent of the vote.

Located along the Ohio-Kentucky border, Cincinnati has a long history of tense race relations. Many still remember Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who once referred to African American Reds players Eric Davis and Dave Parker as “million-dollar ni—ers.” Pureval is the fourth man of color to preside as mayor in this majority-white city. But there has never been a mayor whose mother came from Tibet. In a city where the Asian population hovers around 2.2 percent, an Indian-Tibetan candidate prevailed.

Changes are taking place in cities across the nation as young men and women of color compete successfully for office. On Nov. 2, Michelle Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, became Boston’s first elected mayor of color. The victories of mayoral candidates like Pureval, Wu, Ed Gainey of Pittsburgh, Justin Bibb of Cleveland, and Abdullah Hammoud of Dearborn, Mich., indicate the growing influence of minority voters in cities once known for their exclusion.

Cincinnati was looking for change. Pureval’s 82-year-old opponent had been holding office in Cincinnati as a city council member, mayor and U.S. representative since the 1970s. Cincinnati is a majority-Democratic town. While both Pureval and Mann are Democrats, the Pureval campaign painted Mann as a darling of Republican business elites. Pureval focused his campaign on economic recovery, public safety, affordable housing and an effective environmental plan (including climate change). After his win, he spoke of the significance of his victory as a person of Indian-Tibetan descent and said, “I am incredibly proud of my background, my culture and my ethnicity.”

Pureval recognizes the sad story of Tibet and its inability to maintain its identity and culture. It is located in the autonomous region of China, and many residents have fled Tibet over the years because of the human, political and religious repression it has endured from both Chinese and Mongolian dynasties. Pureval hopes his election as the first Tibetan Indian mayor will give the Tibetan community hope for a better future. Pureval also maintains his roots and connections to the Tibetan community across the country via social media.

Yet, after the historical significance of this victory wears off, the question is what will actually change. Cincinnati is often looked at as being two different cities. There is the blossoming city that is home to the baseball Reds, football Bengals, popular music festivals and a burgeoning roster of some of the world’s wealthiest corporations. The city gained in population during the last decade.

Cincinnati houses nine Fortune 500 companies, and can hold its own when it comes to economic strength. Despite a past economic downturn, it has turned a corner and is fighting its way back, with new restaurants, apartments, condos and quaint rehabbed neighborhoods that allow for increased foot traffic.

But most residents are not fed from the richness of the city. They hunger for a taste of the good life but only dream of being heard in one of the most segregated communities in the U.S. This part of the city is where racism and division win and have prevailed for decades.

While Cincinnati is an economic powerhouse, its economic growth is grotesquely uneven. The poverty rate is high, and the economy is dominated by low-wage jobs. Communities of color make up 33 percent of the population in surrounding Hamilton County, up from 23 percent in 1990.

Most of the neighborhoods in Hamilton County are not seeing economic sunshine. They are failing to attract investment or experience growth, only decline and dilapidation. There are few new living spaces in these areas – only distressed and/or vacant properties, despite increased housing and living costs.

Cincinnati ranks 54th among large cities in Black-white employment equality, and it is 60th of 71 when it comes to median income. According to the National Urban League, Black unemployment is 11.7 percent, compared to 4.5 percent for white residents. For now, the city will celebrate the historic achievement of its new mayor, but the real test will come as he attempts to tackle the city’s festering problems.

Cincinnati has many assets, but its inability to capitalize on its richness is an embarrassment of sorts. It has picturesque architecture, attractive urban corridors, major corporate headquarters, and regional assets like Delta Air Lines and a major amusement park. Still, it remains a city of haves and have-nots. Aftab Pureval will have to put in a herculean effort to address these issues for which he seems up for the challenge.

N’Jhari Jackson, a student at the University of Florida, contributed to this article.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Sharon Wright Austin is a professor of Political Science at the University of Florida where she teaches courses in Asian American politics, African American politics, American politics, and public policy.
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