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Analysis: Aftab Pureval really won 2 elections

aftab pureval election day 2
Aftab Pureval
Then-mayoral candidate Aftab Pureval greeted voters at polling places in Walnut Hills, Mt. Lookout, Clifton, Avondale and more across the city on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

Aftab Pureval, Cincinnati's mayor-elect, was absolutely right Tuesday night when he declared his election by a nearly two-to-one margin "historic."

Historic, yes. Unexpected, no.

It had become obvious over the last month of the campaign that the 39-year-old clerk of courts, the son of immigrants from India and Tibet, was going to roll over his opponent, Council Member David Mann, whose five decades on the Cincinnati political scene probably ended Tuesday night.

But the fact is, Pureval won not one but two elections Tuesday.

The first, his own, against Mann; and the second in the Cincinnati City Council race, where eight of the nine seats went to endorsed Democrats, including six who have never served on council before.

For a brand new Democratic mayor with big ideas and big plans, this is a dream come true.

"It could not have gone better for Aftab,'' said Democratic political strategist Jared Kamrass. "There's no doubt he can find six votes to do whatever he wants.

"And these Democrats on council either like him or love him,'' Kamrass said. "There is nobody who hates him."

One theme ran through WVXU's election night interviews with the new council members – they want to collaborate; they want to put an end to the infighting; they want to get things done.

This has to be music to Pureval's ears.

What mayor, governor or even president would not want to be dealing with a legislative body that likes him and wants to cooperate?

A politician's dream.

new cincinnati city council
Photos Courtesy of the candidates
Collage by Jennifer Merritt
Clockwise from top left: Jeff Cramerding; Reggie Harris; Mark Jefferys; Greg Landsman; Victoria Parks; Meeka Owens; Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney; Scotty Johnson; Liz Keating.

Pureval is, as the late baseball broadcaster Red Barber used to say, in the catbird's seat.

"He doesn't even need all of the Democrats to get what he wants,'' said Sean Comer, the government relations director at Xavier University. "That's a lot of power for a mayor to wield. It gives him a lot of leeway to go big with his plans."

And, said Kamrass, all eight Democrats seem to like each other.

"There doesn't seem to be any of those Smitherman-versus-Sittenfeld situations we've seen in the past," Kamrass said.

How did the Democrats do it?

Party discipline in a very low-turnout election. (At 24%, it was the lowest turnout election in Cincinnati in decades.)

Most Democratic voters – a majority in the city – clearly voted the entire Democratic slate card and ignored the Republican and Charter candidates.

"Voters are now more polarized than ever – Democrats vote for Democrats and Republicans for Republicans," Kamrass said. "And the Democrats are as organized as they have ever been."

The party discipline for the Democrats extended into the Cincinnati Board of Education race. All four of the Democratic Party endorsed candidates – newcomers Mary Wineberg, Brandon Craig and Kareem Moffett, along with incumbent Mike Moroski – were elected to the four seats up for grabs on the school board.

The lone Republican

Three Republican City Council members who were appointed to their positions were on the ballot – Liz Keating, Steve Goodin and Betsy Sundermann.

Keating, Liz.jpg
Courtesy Liz Keating

Keating was the only one who survived, winning the ninth and final spot on council by 1,538 votes in the unofficial vote count over unendorsed Democrat Michelle Dillingham, a hard-luck candidate who has now finished 10th and just out of the running in two straight council elections.

Keating, the granddaughter of the late William J. Keating, a congressman, council member and newspaper publisher, seems to be the kind of Republican who will be able to work with the eight Democrats on many issues. Not all, probably, but many.

"To me, it was more about listening to everybody and what they wanted to see from council members, versus going out there trying to make headlines and trying to just shout my message out," Keating told WVXU's Becca Costello Tuesday night. "I think that's going to be important going forward: being able to listen and learn from people and have a lot of voices help guide me."

Keating had a Charter Committee endorsement, but that is certainly not what won the seat for her. She reached out to non-Republican voters – which is the only sane thing for a Republican candidate in Cincinnati to do, given the fact that one analysis of city voters shows that only 8% identify themselves as Republicans.

She had a huge presence on social media; and two politicians well known in the Black community – former mayor Dwight Tillery and Republican Charlie Winburn did radio ads for here on Black radio stations.

Smart move.

Comer said Keating, when she takes office, is going to have a decision to make.

"Does she want to collaborate and work with the majority; or does she want to be a Republican and choose to be a thorn in the side of the Democrats?" Comer said.

So far, anyway, she has shown an inclination to work with her soon-to-be fellow council members.

What happened to Charter?

In 2020, after three sitting City Council members were indicted on federal bribery charges, the air was thick with talk of the "culture of corruption" at Cincinnati City Hall. And the Charter Committee, Cincinnati's self-proclaimed "good government" political party, was feeling its oats and sensing an opportunity to gain more than a foothold on City Council in this year's election.

It was a bust.

Charter had eight endorsed candidates and only one won a seat – Keating, who is a Republican but accepted a Charter cross-endorsement.

The two who had the highest hopes were both former members of council attempting a comeback – Jim Tarbell and Kevin Flynn.

Surprising to many, neither came within sniffing distance of a council seat.

Flynn, who left council rather than run again in 2017, did the better of the two, but it wasn't nearly good enough. He finished in 12th place, nearly 3,500 votes behind Keating, the ninth place finisher.

Tarbell, who has been on the Cincinnati music, restaurant and political scenes since the 1960s, did even worse – he finished 15th, 5,630 votes out of the running.

It proved that name ID is not enough.

The voters decided it was time to move on and choose new faces rather than settle for well-known names.

"They seemed to lay back and wait for the voters to come to them," Comer said. "You've got to run a hard campaign to win in this atmosphere. Doesn't matter what your name is."

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.