The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A night of firsts: Black, Asian American candidates make history in mayoral elections

Aftab Pureval speaks during a campaign event on Nov. 4, 2018, in Cincinnati, when he was running for Congress. (John Minchillo/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

When Aftab Pureval first toyed with the idea of running for office in Ohio, he faced immediate skepticism — not because of his credentials, but because of his name.

“A Brown guy named Aftab can’t win in Hamilton County,” he said he was told time and again.

Some suggested he give up his real name for a more familiar one. But the son of a Tibetan refugee and Indian immigrant ignored the advice. Instead, he decided, he would teach Ohioans his name, throwing a reference to the Aflac duck into campaign commercials for clerk of courts in 2016.

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

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

Asian American candidates won at least two big-city mayoral races in what is being hailed as a major victory for a group that has the least representation in politics despite being one of the nation’s fastest-growing demographics. Their electoral triumphs also come at a time when Asian Americans have experienced an uptick in hate crimes during the coronavirus pandemic.

They weren’t the only ethnic and racial minorities to witness history Tuesday night: Pittsburgh and St. Petersburg, Fla., elected their first Black mayors, while voters in Durham, N.C., voted in their first Black woman leader. Many of the candidates won in areas where the groups they represent are not a large percentage of the population. And while they may have spoken about their backgrounds, they did not necessarily make it a focal point of their campaigns.

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

Welch is the son of David T. Welch, who ran for the same office in 1991. Back then, things were decidedly different. Ken Welch remembers his father receiving a letter at their home that contained a newspaper article announcing the campaign and the image of a pistol taped on top. The veteran brushed it aside and kept campaigning.

“That stuck with me,” Ken Welch recalled. “It didn’t affect him at all.”

Welch’s father lost the election, and for a time, Ken Welch thought he’d never run for office. But he said that as he saw what good could come from public service, he reconsidered. Following the example of his father, who served on the city council, he ran for county commissioner and then set his sights on mayor.

On Tuesday he delivered a victory speech before a crowd of relatives and supporters, wearing a campaign button from his father’s mayoral bid three decades earlier.

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

Analysts say the rising number of Black politicians running major cities is notable, even while there remain significant gaps in representation. Pearl Dowe, a professor of political science and African American studies at Emory University, said many are finding that their experiences speak to a wide electorate when it comes to challenges within the workforce, health care and schooling. Black women in particular are finding success at the ballot box.

“Nationally there is a very different type of rhetoric when it comes to race and ethnicity,” Dowe said. “Hopefully this can help move the conversation beyond the caustic, vitriolic conversation.”

Fourteen of the nation’s 100 largest cities are led by women of color, including eight who are Black, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Before Tuesday, three were Asian American. The ranks of minority women mayors expanded Tuesday with the elections of Michelle Wu, an Asian American and the first woman and politician of color voted to lead Boston, and Elaine O’Neal, who will be the first Black woman to lead Durham, N.C.

Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Rutgers center, said victories like those are challenging old doubts about the electability of women of color in predominantly or majority White districts that some party leaders and donors still express.

“We know it’s wrong because we’ve seen women of color winning in districts or states that are majority White electorates,” Dittmar said.

Wu won in a city with a complicated history of race relations and where Asian Americans represent a relatively small percentage of the electorate. Though she did not shy away from sharing her story as the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, her platform focused more broadly on building solidarity across groups and pitching a “Green New Deal” for the city.

“I think it’s an important part of her identity, but it’s not the only factor,” said Angie Liou, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corp., a group that works to promote affordable housing. “She certainly had to appeal to and capture a wider swath of other voters.”

Democrat Michelle Wu, daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, defeated fellow Democrat Annissa Essaibi George, in the Nov. 2 Boston mayoral runoff election. (Video: The Washington Post)

Several analysts said female politicians of color face unique challenges: Political psychologists have observed that voters tend to easily view women fitting in as politicians on committees and doing other communal work at the federal level, while being less likely to see them as holding the sort of executive leadership traits seen in a mayor or governor.

Likewise, being a “first” comes with an added weight of expectation. A recent study by the Reflective Democracy Campaign found that while Asian American and Pacific Islanders represent 6.1 percent of U.S. population, they make up just 0.9 percent of U.S. elected leaders.

“There are so few Asian Americans or women of color in her position, there are probably going to be expectations and aspirations that she’s really going to be a voice of advocacy,” Liou said of Wu.

For Pureval, becoming Cincinnati’s first Asian American mayor meant challenging stereotypes head-on, knocking on more doors than other candidates and being more creative.

During his first campaign, for clerk of courts, he said the most frequent question he got was: What is an Aftab? He responded with a campaign commercial in which a yellow duck popped up on the screen and repeated his name, not unlike in the insurance commercial.

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

Now he said he’s hopeful a new generation will not see their names as a barrier.

“The fact that when I was growing up not a lot of people looked like me in politics, in fact no one did, that’s not true anymore,” he said. “There is a whole generation behind me who look like me, who are hungry to serve, and who are going to make a big impact.”

Read more:

Reeling Democrats see threat to House and Senate control as Republicans crack their 2020 coalition

Record Asian American turnout helped Biden win Georgia. Can it help flip the Senate?

‘This could have been me’