“If we are going to make real progress on the urgent crises facing all of our communities, we need lawmakers who are committed to legislating boldly – that's Nina.” pic.twitter.com/HXRyVxSAZV
— Daniel Marans (@danielmarans) June 29, 2021
Before there was the Squad, or even the glimmer of a movement by insurgent progressives to challenge incumbent congressional Democrats, a progressive Black woman legislator in Cleveland contemplated what to many Democrats was unthinkable at the time: challenging a respected Black congresswoman from the left in a primary, in this case Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio, in 2012.
In the end, Nina Turner didn’t run against Fudge, but even announcing she was considering it made her an outsider to establishment Democratic Party politics. In a way, she’d always been one. She had come up as a college professor, city council member, and state senator, always a Democrat. But one of her earliest moves was backing a 2009 ballot initiative to reorganize the Cuyahoga County government that many local Democrats strenuously opposed. It passed overwhelmingly.
Turner again made establishment enemies when she went from publicly supporting the Ready for Hillary super PAC—the unofficial stalking horse for the presidential candidacy of the former senator and secretary of state—to becoming a top surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders in his 2016 primary campaign.
The Political Revolution Comes to… Buffalo?
Now Nina Turner may be poised to actually join the Squad. In her run to fill the seat vacated when Fudge became the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the former Ohio legislator has the endorsement of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Cori Bush, four women of color who either defeated an incumbent or ascended after an incumbent stepped down. She’s also backed by Progressive Caucus chairs Pramila Jayapal and Katie Porter, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison—and, of course, Bernie Sanders.
One of 13 Democratic candidates in the race, Turner is leading in campaign funding—her campaign announced in mid-June that she had raised over $3 million—thanks largely to her ability to tap into Sanders’s movement. Her volunteer events often brim with die-hard supporters of the Vermont senator. At almost every gathering, Turner tells her audience that her focus is on “‘the least of these’—the poor, the working poor and barely middle class.” She’s running on Medicare for All, free college, a $15 minimum wage, criminal justice reform, and voting rights.
The key to this race, though, will be winning over her district’s many Biden supporters—the president won roughly 80 percent of the general-election vote here last year, as did Clinton four years earlier—without losing her admirers on the Sanders left. She’s already drawn fire from a leftist fringe for her perceived betrayals, most notably for defending members of the Squad who declined to “force the vote” on Medicare for All earlier this year. “For the love of God, do not throw away the Squad members!” she told a lefty podcaster. Meanwhile, her leading rival, Cuyahoga County councilwoman and Democratic Party chair Shontel Brown, is running on her ties to the president. A recent ad includes a photo of Brown with Biden and features a cable host telling Turner, “You’ve been highly critical of President-elect Joe Biden.” The ad closes with: “I’m Shontel Brown, and I’ll work with Joe Biden.” (By press time, Clinton had endorsed Brown.)
“Highly critical” of Biden might be an understatement. A July 2020 Atlantic feature on how Trump could win in November featured this colorful quote from Turner about how, despite Sanders’s endorsement, she still wasn’t keen on voting for Biden. “It’s like saying to somebody, ‘You have a bowl of shit in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing.’ It’s still shit.”
Turner has praised Biden as president, especially his Covid response. But will those earlier attacks hurt her? “I think it hurt her in the beginning, but I think people have gotten past that,” says Turner backer Samara Knight. “People are hungry for change. Nina brings hope.” Knight, an executive vice president of SEIU 1199, is a Biden supporter and also backed Clinton in 2016. Her union endorsed Turner after interviewing both her and Brown. “She’ll fight for us,” Knight says.
Brown has recently floated tributes to Israel at the top of her campaign website, as she’s welcomed support from the PAC Democratic Majority for Israel, which spent $1.4 million on ads attacking Sanders in 2020. The group is attacking Turner now for past statements conditioning US support for Israel on justice for the Palestinians.
“I’m a Democrat,” Turner tells me flatly. She runs through her party bona fides: as a city council member and state senator representing the city of Cleveland; as a Barack Obama delegate, twice, to the Democratic National Convention; as the Democratic nominee for Ohio secretary of state in 2014; as the engagement chair of the Ohio party. No one can take that away from her just because she supported Sanders, she says. “Sometimes, challenge isn’t pretty.”
Democratic voters will decide in an August 3 primary. An internal poll released on June 1 showed Turner at 50 percent and Brown at 15 percent, trailing “undecided.” But observers say the race could tighten, given Brown’s access to outside money.
Not a lot of news as the Senate and Congress are on recess. But still plenty of things to discuss! Place your comments below.