Thursday, December 2, 2021

Opening Night: Asian Black American Candidates Made History in Mayoral Election

When Aftab Pureval first conceived of running for office in Ohio, he immediately faced skepticism – not because of his credentials, but because of his name.

“A brown guy named Aftab can’t win in Hamilton County,” he said over and over.

Some suggested that he give up his real name in favor of a more familiar one. But the son of a Tibetan refugee and immigrant from India ignored the advice. Instead, he decided, he would teach Ohio his name by adding a reference to the Aflak duck in a 2016 ad campaign for a court clerk.

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It worked, and on Tuesday he won another major victory: the mayor of Cincinnati.

“I don’t know if they could have predicted a night like last,” he said of his immigrant parents. “But I know they knew it was possible.”


Asian-American candidates have won at least two major city halls, a big win for the group with the least political representation, despite being one of the fastest growing demographics. Their electoral victories also come at a time when Asian Americans have experienced a spike in hate crimes during the coronavirus pandemic.

They weren’t the only ethnic and racial minorities witnessing the story Tuesday night: Pittsburgh and St. Petersburg, Florida, elected their first black mayors, while voters in Durham, North Carolina, voted for their first black female leader. Many candidates have won in areas where the groups they represent do not represent a large percentage of the population. And while they may have talked about their past, they did not necessarily make it the focus of their campaigns.

“It’s not just about making history,” said Ken Welch, newly elected mayor of St. Petersburg. “It’s about what you do after the election.”

Welch is the son of David T. Welch, who ran in the same office in 1991. It was different then. Ken Welch recalls how his father received a letter at their home containing a newspaper article announcing the campaign and a picture of a pistol pasted on top. The veteran brushed it off and continued campaigning.

“It stuck with me,” recalled Ken Welch. “It didn’t affect him in any way.”

Ken Welch, newly elected mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida.  Thirty years ago, Welch's father had unsuccessfully aspired to become the city's first black mayor.  Welch donned his father's button on Tuesday.  (Martha Asensio-Reign / Tampa Bay Times via AP)

His father lost the vote, and for a while Ken Welch thought he would never run for office. But he said that after seeing the benefits of civil service, he reconsidered his opinion. Following the example of his father, who served on the city council, he ran for the local office and then targeted the mayor.

On Tuesday, he gave a victory speech to a crowd of relatives and supporters, wearing the campaign button chosen by his father three decades ago.

“He would say, ‘Great job,’” Welch said. “Now let’s get to work.”

Analysts say the rise in the number of black politicians ruling major cities is noticeable, even though significant representation gaps remain. Pearl Doe, professor of political science and African American studies at Emory University, said many find their experience appeals to a wider electorate when it comes to labor, health and education issues. In particular, black women do well at the ballot box.

“At the national level, there is a very different type of rhetoric when it comes to race and ethnicity,” she said. “Hopefully this will help move the conversation beyond caustic, sarcastic conversation.”

According to the Rutgers University Center for American Women in Politics, 14 of the country’s 100 largest cities are headed by women of color, including eight blacks. Until Tuesday, the three were Asian Americans. The ranks of minority women mayors expanded on Tuesday with the election of Michelle Wu, the first woman and politician of color to vote to lead Boston, and Elaine O’Neill, who will become the first black woman to lead Durham.

Boston-elected Mayor Michelle Wu at a party on Tuesday's election night.  She became the first woman of color to be elected mayor of Boston.  (Josh Reynolds / AP)

Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Rutgers Center, said victories like these challenge old doubts that some party leaders and sponsors still express about electing women of color in white-dominated or majority-white areas.

“We know this is wrong because we see women of color winning in counties or states where the majority of voters are white,” Dittmar said.

Wu won in a city where race history is complex and where Asian Americans make up a relatively small percentage of the electorate. While she did not shy away from talking about her daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, her platform more broadly focused on building solidarity between groups and promoting a Green New Deal for the city.

“I think it’s an important part of her personality, but it’s not the only factor,” said Angie Liu, executive director of Asian Community Development Corp., a group that promotes affordable housing. “She definitely needed to attract and attract a wider range of other voters.”

Several analysts have stated that women of color face unique challenges: political psychologists noted that voters tend to easily view women who are suitable politicians on committees and other public work at the federal level, while less likely to be that they will consider them to be executive leadership traits of a mayor or governor.

Likewise, being “first” brings the extra weight of expectation. A recent study by the Reflective Democracy Campaign found that while Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up 6.1% of the US population, they make up just 0.9% of elected US leaders.

“There are so few Asian Americans or women of color in her position that there are likely to be expectations and hopes that she will truly become a voice of defense,” Liu said.

For Pureval, becoming the first Asian-American mayor of Cincinnati meant challenging stereotypes, opening more doors than other candidates, and being more creative.

During his first campaign for a court clerk, he said that the most frequent question he was asked was: what is an aftab? He responded with a campaign commercial in which a yellow duck appeared on the screen and repeated his name, as in an insurance commercial.

“It was very memorable, self-deprecating and funny,” he recalled. “It kind of took the heat off the ‘dissimilarity’ of my name and made people comfortable.”

Now he said he hopes the new generation won’t see their names as a hindrance.

“The fact that when I was growing up, in politics, not many people looked like me, and in fact no one looked, this is no longer true,” he said. “There is an entire generation behind me who are like me, who are eager to serve and are about to make a big impact.”

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