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29 October 2018updated 03 Nov 2018 6:37pm

Blue Wave: Meet Aftab Pureval, the 36-year-old son of a refugee hoping to make history in Ohio

The formidable fundraiser hopes to unseat a Republican who has represented Ohio’s first district for over two decades.

By Sophie McBain

This is the fourth in the series of New Statesman America profiles of the “Blue Wave” of new, young, progressive candidates in this year’s midterm elections. You can find the others here.

“The question I get asked most often is: ‘what is an Aftab?’ People are very confused. They think I’m an insurance company. They think I’m a prescription,” Aftab Pureval, the 36-year-old Democrat running for Congress in Ohio tells me. “But I have fun with it, because I’m able to embrace my uniqueness.”

Democratic strategists had suggested he could change his name to something more common, like Al or Adam, to boost his election chances, but Pureval believes that “the number one thing voters are looking for is authenticity” and, as he wasn’t going to change his name, he might as well make it work for him.

In 2016, when he decided to run to become Hamilton County’s Clerk of Courts, an administrative role within the judicial system, he created a campaign ad that featured a toy duck quacking “Aftab”. It was a spoof of the Aflac duck TV commercials, a popular series of ads for the insurance company Aflac.

Pureval won the election and became the county’s first Democratic clerk of courts in over a century.

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“I’m half-Indian, half-Tibetan. I look vaguely Hawaiian but I’m all American,” Pureval tells me with a laugh when we speak on the phone. His mother is a Tibetan refugee who fled with her family to India following the Chinese invasion of Tibet; his father is from the Punjab. The pair met in university and emigrated to the US shortly after, settling in Beavercreek, Ohio, where Pureval was born and raised.

He describes his family history, the trajectory from his parents’ experience as new immigrants to his decision to run for Congress, as a “truly American story”.

“The idea that the harder you work the more you can achieve is incredibly true here in America. But, unfortunately, given recent policies and the direction of the country, that access to the American dream is becoming less and less of a reality for so many communities across the country,” he tells me.

As a result, he says the focus of his campaign is “fighting for middle-class and working-class Americans” facing rising inequality, soaring healthcare costs and declining social mobility.

Like many of the candidates New Statesman America is profiling ahead of the midterms, Pureval is making access to healthcare a central issue. His opponent, Republican Steve Chabot, voted repeatedly in favour of rolling back the Affordable Care Act and stripping protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Pureval is not calling for Medicare-for-all in the immediate term, but says his focus is on protecting the Affordable Care Act, ensuring that Americans with pre-existing conditions can access affordable healthcare and reducing drug costs.

He said he had never planned on running for Congress. “My story is similar to the story of people all across the country. For so many people, this is the first time they’ve ever run. For so many people, this is the first time they’ve ever been engaged in politics and what’s incredibly inspiring about running right now, in this time and in this country, is that there’s an incredible amount of energy that is washing over this country,” he says.

“I was really compelled to run. I felt the fierce urgency to run for Congress … because this country is on a perilous course.”

Pureval, a former corporate lawyer, has been endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, one of the largest values-based caucuses in Congress, and a group that will become even more influential should the midterms witness the much-anticipated “blue wave”.

He supports a $15 minimum wage (a policy he introduced at the Hamilton County courthouse) and paid family leave (another policy he introduced as Clerk of Courts). He says he is a firm advocate for women’s rights and promises to fight for women’s access to legal abortions, and for LGBTQ rights.

Chabot, who is 65, has held Ohio’s first Congressional district almost continuously since 1995 (except for when he lost his seat for two years from 2008). But, unusually for a candidate running against such an entrenched incumbent, Pureval has substantially outraised Chabot, having fundraised over $3 million compared to Chabot’s $1.4 million in campaign contributions. Even more impressively, he managed this while also refusing money from corporate PACs.

The Cook Political Report has classified the race as a “toss-up”, and Pureval is on the Democratic party’s “Red to Blue list”, which gives extra support to promising candidates in target seats.

However, both Pureval and Chabot have been dogged by controversies surrounding campaign spending. Pureval is under investigation over whether he misspent $30,000 from his Clerk of Courts campaign account on his congressional campaign (he denies the claim). Chabot received a federal election complaint for allegedly paying his son-in-law more than $177,000 over six years for building and maintaining his websites.

The campaign has also been marred by some pretty nasty attack tactics. In an ad that stood out even in this election cycle, during which several Republican candidates have put out inflammatory or overtly racist campaign videos, the Republican congressional leadership fund released a video that linked Pureval to the late-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The video alleged that Pureval worked for a firm that advised the Libyan government on how to reduce payments to American victims of the 1989 Lockerbie bombing, a terrorist attack ordered by Gaddafi. (The law firm that Pureval previously worked at, White & Case, was indeed hired by the Libyan government to negotiate settlements with Lockerbie victims, but Pureval was never involved: he did not yet work for the firm at the time.)

Early voting numbers place Chabot ahead of Pureval, as do most polls, but Pureval has a shot. And should he succeed, like many of the young, energetic candidates interviewed by New Statesman America, he has said that he will be looking to change the Democratic Party from the bottom up.

“One of the biggest reasons that I’m running is because I think we need a new generation of leadership, without question,” he says. “Washington DC is toxic. It’s broken, and it’s broken on both sides. Fresh faces and fresh voices are important and we should make way for them.”