Visiting the outskirts, meeting with voters put Pureval into public office

With the help of a duck, Hamilton County's first Democratic clerk of courts since 1903 showed how to win in a Republican stronghold.

Nov 16, 2016 at 10:04 am

click to enlarge Aftab Pureval meets his duck's new fan, Alvin, at Trunk or Treat in Cheviot while on the campaign trail in October.
Aftab Pureval meets his duck's new fan, Alvin, at Trunk or Treat in Cheviot while on the campaign trail in October.

Two Saturdays before Election Day, a Halloween event called Trunk or Treat brought candy-filled cars and more than 500 people into the parking lot of Cheviot United Methodist Church. As kids in costumes collected sweets from one car trunk to the next, a political candidate was trying to collect votes. His most avid responder, though, was a little boy disguised as the Flash. And the boy just wanted to play with the wannabe politician’s duck.

Stuffed duck, actually. By that night, the yellow duck had become the alter ego of Aftab Pureval, the Democratic candidate for Hamilton County clerk of courts. His first name sounds so much like a big insurance company that he adopted its duck character and put it in his TV ads.

“On Election Day, we’re in Price Hill, and the boy’s grandmother approached us and raised the picture of the boy, Aftab and the duck,” said Sarah Topy, Pureval’s campaign manager. “I asked if she would support Aftab, and she said, ‘Of course I’m going to vote for him. He took a picture with my grandson.’ ” 

Hers was just one vote, but it was one of many votes for Pureval from majority Republican Hamilton County. Pureval, who grew up in Beavercreek and now lives in O’Bryonville, won 52.1 percent of all votes cast and takes office on Jan. 2. In the process, he brought an end to an historic losing streak. Six days after the Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908, a Democrat won the court clerk’s office for the first time since 1903.

What made the office seem even more impregnable to Democrats was that it was occupied by a Republican whose last name had appeared on Hamilton County ballots over four decades. Tracy Winkler was handed the job — when it was vacant — by the Republican Party in 2011, then won a four-year term in 2012. Her husband Ralph “Ted” Winkler has held elected judgeships since 1999 and is currently a probate judge. Her brother-in-law Robert Winkler has sat on the bench since 2002, currently in Common Pleas Court. Her father-in-law Ralph Winkler served as a Common Pleas and appellate court judge going back to 1980. Her mother-in-law Cheryl Winkler was an Ohio state representative from 1990 to 2000. 

“Aftab’s a brown guy with a funny name, and she’s a Winkler,” says Topy, a friend of Pureval since their student government days at Ohio State University. “In the last two clerk’s races, Democrats were vastly outspent and did not campaign full-time. So we concluded that if had the financial resources and the time to get to voters, we could overcome that deficit and prevail.”

Pureval got off to a solid start in October 2015. Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, former mayors Mark Mallory and Roxanne Qualls and City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, all Democrats, publicly endorsed him. Family members and friends — friends like Cincinnati lawyers Paul DeMarco and Michael Cioffi and former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper — gave him a $100,000 head start in contributions. The cash would come in handy when he took a leave of absence from his job as a P&G attorney. It also kept the gas tank full as he pressed his Jeep Cherokee into 30,000 miles of campaign duty. 

“He would drive to Harrison to a homecoming game or go to the Colerain YMCA for lunch and meet 100, 200 people at a time,” Topy says. “Of course, most of them weren’t of the same political affiliation, but he would talk about how the courts should be nonpartisan and need to be modernized. Even though Aftab has an unusual name and doesn’t have a 40-year pedigree, the fact that he went to them, met with them and talked with them, sold them.”

Topy, herself a P&G attorney, brought campaign experience to the effort. She was a paid John Kerry staffer in the 2004 presidential election and became deputy political director for the Ohio House Democratic Caucus. She spent two years as state field director for the Ohio Democratic Party. Then she managed the campaign of a Congressional challenger in suburban Chicago, who lost. From there came law school at the University of Cincinnati and, since 2012, the job at P&G. 

“I help brands like Vicks and Pepto-Bismol with legal issues like advertising and FDA regulations,” Topy says.

With less than a month to go before the election, Topy launched a TV advertising campaign that would have sent Don Draper on a philandering bender. The ads featured a nasal, Aftab-quacking duck camera-bombing his way into Pureval’s otherwise serious talk about modernizing the moribund clerk’s office. 

“I honestly think that the reason we won is that Aftab is a terrific candidate with the right ideas and who worked his tail off — and the duck!” Topy says. “Once the TV ads started running, people everywhere — everywhere — would quack at him in the duck voice. They would ask where the duck was and would take selfies with the duck puppet.”

click to enlarge Pureval celebrating at a campaign party Nov. 8 at Rhinehaus in Over-the-Rhine. - Photo: James McNair
Photo: James McNair
Pureval celebrating at a campaign party Nov. 8 at Rhinehaus in Over-the-Rhine.

Ohio doesn’t ask voters to register by political parties. To gauge the politics of a city or region, one can only go by the primary that people chose to vote in. By that measure, 137,739 Hamilton County voters affiliated themselves with Republicans, 103,112 with Democrats, going into the elections. Almost 339,000 voters were considered unaffiliated because they hadn’t voted for candidates in a primary in more than two years. 

Still, Hillary Clinton won 52 percent of the Hamilton County vote for president, compared to Donald Trump’s 43 percent. But would those voters care enough about the lowly court clerk’s office to oust an incumbent?

“I was convinced that the smart money would not have gone on him,” says Gene Beaupre, a political science professor at Xavier University. “He hadn’t run before, and he was up against someone with an established name.” 

Late in the campaign, CityBeat reported that Winkler and a top lieutenant had sent emails to employees during work hours, urging them to devote personal time to her campaign. Although it wasn’t illegal, it made the office look like a small-town operation.

“It is always difficult to defeat an incumbent,” says Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke. “It’s particularly difficult to defeat one with a well-established name and a built-in group of dozens of employees who could be convinced to help in and donate to her campaign. Getting that fact out to the public was an important part of Aftab’s success.”

Pureval’s ethnicity — half Tibetan and half Indian — makes him stand out in a county whose population is only 2.5 percent Asian. But even as Trump roiled voters nationally into a xenophobic frenzy, that didn’t change the outcome of the court clerk’s race.

“Certainly he was asked if he was an American and what country he was from,” Topy says. “But most people found that they had a lot in common with him, agreed with him and ultimately supported him. It’s a testament to the open minds of Hamilton County voters that he won.” ©