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Nina Turner Is Reaching Forward and Reaching Back

Her willingness to learn from her base, while holding fast to principles and being willing to take a public stand even when that stand might cost her, offers a lesson to the party in how to evolve in the years to come.

Nina Turner introduces Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders during a campaign event, January 4, 2020, in Mason City, Iowa.,Patrick Semansky/AP Photo // The World Life Today

The first time I saw Nina Turner speak was at the 2017 People’s Summit, a gathering of faithful Bernie Sanders supporters after his first presidential run, hosted by National Nurses United. It was well into the Trump presidency, and Turner was out to rouse the crowd to action.

RoseAnn DeMoro, then executive director of NNU, introduced her as the Sanders movement’s “spiritual leader.” She took the stage in a floor-length magenta dress and cat-eye glasses, and proceeded to rock the crowd like a combination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Iggy Pop. Halfway through her speech—punctuated, call-and-response-style, with the refrain “With these hands we will rise up”—she hopped off the stage and continued to speak while moving through the crowd, whipping them to a standing ovation, then dropping them to complete silence. Turner pointed out that when Black women like her speak out, “sometimes we are accused of being called angry.” She paused for emphasis. “This morning I am here to say to you my name is Nina Turner and I am an angry ass Black woman.” As the crowd roared its approval, she laughed and invited them to “be an angry Black woman” with her.

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Toward the end of her speech, Turner turned to the crowd, grabbing the hands of two audience members and pulling them close to her. “We have two hands. One to reach forward and the other to reach back,” she said. It struck me then and now as a perfect explanation for what left-leaning elected officials, and particularly Turner herself, are trying to do: reach forward to the movements on the ground, taking ideas from Black Lives Matter and economic and climate justice organizers, and reaching back to those who might not be on board yet, convincing them that a broad progressive movement has something to offer them too.

Now that she’s running for Congress, in the special election to fill Marcia Fudge’s vacant seat in Ohio’s 11th District, Turner is hoping to bring that work to Washington. The Democratic establishment hasn’t forgiven her for choosing Sanders over Hillary Clinton, and is lining up to try to defeat her. But if they could get over past slights, mainstream Democrats could see in Turner’s approach a path out of the stalemates and bickering that usually characterize their time in power. Her willingness to learn from her base, while holding fast to principles and being willing to take a public stand even when that stand might cost her, offers a lesson to the party in how to evolve in the years to come.

IN MAY, I VISITED TURNER in her campaign office, finding that same charisma present in her public speeches and in one-on-one conversations, the same humor, the same intensity. The office was in the Cleveland neighborhood where she’d grown up, known as Lee-Harvard. She lived with her maternal grandparents and what she described as “a network of grandmamas” in the neighborhood, keeping an eye on her and the other kids. Her mother, a nurse’s aide, struggled to care for seven children and deal with her own health, and died at just 42. Turner credits her mother’s death for her devotion to Medicare for All as a policy, and her experience getting a series of jobs as a teenager to help the family stay afloat for her determination to raise wages for the nation’s working people.

Turner has been in public service in some fashion since 1997, when she took a job as a legislative aide to state Sen. Rhine McLin, then worked for the city of Cleveland’s school district. She won a seat on Cleveland’s city council in 2005 and then was appointed to replace a resigning state senator in 2008. In the state Senate, she attracted national attention when, in protest against (male) legislators’ continuing attempts to restrict reproductive health care, she introduced a bill that would require men to jump through the same kind of hoops to get Viagra that women are required to in order to get an abortion. It would have mandated a cardiac stress test and proof from a recent partner that they are indeed experiencing erectile dysfunction. The audacity—and humor—of that bill were a hallmark of her style, and give an indication of the kind of fights she might pick on Capitol Hill.

As a sitting state senator and a rising star in Ohio’s Democratic Party, Turner ran for secretary of state in 2014, looking forward to the next presidential election in a key swing state, and back at the long history of denying Black people in particular access to the ballot. She lost that race and hasn’t run for office since. But when Fudge, who represents the district where Turner has spent most of her life, was chosen as secretary of housing and urban development, “this assignment chose me,” Turner said.

But Turner is known best outside of Ohio as one of Bernie Sanders’s earliest supporters. And while her local supporters speak approvingly of her time in office and her approachability on the campaign trail, she continues to be drawn back into the endless clamor rehashing the 2016 primary.

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As the Vermont senator’s first Black endorser “of note,” she unwittingly stepped squarely into one of the more persistent—and persistently wrong—narratives of left-of-center politics in the past five years: that the politics of race and of class are somehow opposed, and that Sanders and the growing democratic socialist movement in the U.S. represent a mostly white base that wants to subordinate “identity politics” to the all-encompassing mantle of class.

Before the 2016 presidential race began, Turner, then chair of engagement in the Ohio Democratic Party, had accepted an invitation to speak at a Ready for Hillary event. She had just come off her bruising secretary of state race, where she and every other statewide Democrat had lost, and, she said, “like a good Democrat,” she’d agreed to appear. She gave the keynote address at the rally. “Quite frankly, I didn’t think anybody else was going to run.”

When Sanders announced his campaign, Turner said, her husband called her, saying, “This guy sounds just like you!” She remembered Sanders from his eight-and-a-half-hour speech in 2010 decrying a bipartisan tax deal, and the idea that he might run that kind of uncompromising campaign stuck with her. His calls for Medicare for All reminded her of her mother’s untimely death; College for All recalled her own grind to become a first-generation college graduate. But friends warned her: “If you do this, they’re going to come for you.”

Campaign signs dot a Cleveland gas station where Nina Turner spoke with constituents. (Mike Ferguson / The American Prospect)

It still frustrates Turner that people “don’t understand the deliberate way I made this decision.” She had to resign her position with the state party, and MSNBC got wind of her endorsement as she was on the way to Iowa. “You would have thought I said that I was running for president,” she laughed. “When that word got out, it just went like wildfire.” But the warnings had been right: People did come for her, on Twitter and in private. That first day, she said, she cried. “Democrats will rail against Republicans and Republicans will rail against Democrats, but both power structures do basically the same thing to people on the inside who don’t bend to their will,” Turner said. “That is the side of politics that is ugly and that is the side of politics internally that I want to be a part of changing.”

Turner has “no regrets” about aligning with Sanders’s movement, even though she’s taken plenty of flak for it. The expectation that as a woman, and particularly as a Black woman, she was inherently disposed to support Clinton makes her laugh now, with a look in her eyes that says she’s sick of this subject, but knows she has to talk about it. “A. Philip Randolph was a leftist,” she said of the legendary Black union organizer and civil rights leader. “The working class comes in all shapes and sizes and identities. It always has been that way and always will be.”

In fact, the left’s recent electoral success has been led by Black and brown people, immigrants and children of immigrants. Even before Sanders’s run for the presidency, there was Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi, and Kshama Sawant in Seattle. Around the country, there are local elected officials like khalid kamau in South Fulton, Georgia; Jabari Brisport, Jessica Ramos, and others in New York’s state legislature; and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, and the other members of the city council’s Democratic Socialist Caucus in Chicago. In Congress, the core “Squad” looks like today’s working class: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Latina and former bartender from the Bronx; Ilhan Omar, from the same Somali immigrant community where workers made the first dent in Amazon’s armor; Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian American daughter of a Ford factory worker who in her every speech acknowledges her roots in Detroit’s Black struggle; and the incandescent Cori Bush, who roots her politics in her days and nights in the Ferguson uprising, and who alongside Black former school principal Jamaal Bowman traveled to Alabama to support Amazon workers’ union drive.

The fights may continue on Twitter, but in the real world, people simply get on with the work, organizing around the issues that touch their lives. Turner’s recognition of the connections between racial and class struggles could make her an oddly unifying figure in Congress—but her foes still want to characterize her as a troublemaker.

FOR THE LAST FIVE YEARS, Turner has been the most visible face of the Sanders movement besides Sanders’s own. She was president of Our Revolution, the group that inherited Sanders’s email list and some of his movement’s momentum, from 2016 to 2019.

Like many organizations spun off from a rebel candidate’s unsuccessful electoral campaign—or indeed, successful one, if Barack Obama’s Organizing for America is to be included—Our Revolution had a harder time filtering its focus down to the grassroots level than it did marshaling support for the name-brand candidate. Just because it has access to the coveted email list doesn’t mean that it can maintain the level of intensity of a presidential campaign in the years in between.

What would Our Revolution be? Would it fight for policies or do political education? Would it organize at the grassroots or be a PAC for endorsing candidates? It’s not, after all, as if the U.S. lacks for progressive political organizations, from MoveOn to DSA. Turner was invested in making OR a venue for coalition-building, at a deeper level than hitting people up for donations every two or four years. The Black church, she noted, is a constant campaign stop for Democrats who then don’t show up until the next election. “It’s not so much that you’re going to be able to solve every problem that they have,” she said, “but people don’t want to be used.”

Our Revolution consisted of hundreds of chapters and over a quarter-million members across the country; Turner described visiting all but three states during her time there. However, David Duhalde, OR’s former political director, wrote in Jacobin, “the truth behind these numbers painted a more complex picture of a grassroots group trying to square its democratic and insurgent narrative with a traditional nonprofit structure and nonuniform separation of power.” Turner, Duhalde told me, supported local groups making decisions for themselves, and campaigned for candidates up and down the ballot. “She knew as a former state representative the importance of building a bench and how much politics happens locally.”

But Turner also had public critics. Erika Andiola, OR’s political director before Duhalde, wrote that she was fired for her involvement with direct action around the DREAM Act, and criticized Turner’s hiring of Tezlyn Figaro, sharing screenshots of Figaro’s tweets referring to “illegal immigrants.” Lucy Flores, another prominent early Sanders backer and OR board member, left the group, telling Politico that she’d been concerned that Latinx issues were getting short shrift within the group and that Turner spent more time building her own profile at the expense of the organization. (Figaro later filed suit against OR for racial discrimination.)

Duhalde, for his part, spoke highly of Turner’s stewardship of the organization. “She was an amazing leader and I think that there’s a lot of things that she led on in the Berniecrat movement that she doesn’t get credit for,” he said.

Of her time with OR, Turner said that presidential campaigns can sweep a lot of disagreement under the rug temporarily, as disparate supporters rally to a particular candidate. “In politics—especially electoral politics—we build this soft coalition,” she said. “It’s not sturdy because you are not really getting to know and hear from the people what their hopes and dreams and fears are.”

Turner, like the majority of OR’s staff, left the organization to return to Sanders’s second presidential campaign, and OR’s new leadership has focused on jobs and on challenging President Biden to do better by workers in a changing economy. (I wrote about some of that work for the Prospect in November.) But its effectiveness still varies state by state.

In Ohio, the local organizing is just emerging from the pandemic, according to Diane Morgan, chair of OR Ohio. She’s been organizing online events, some socially distanced rallies, and plenty of phone-banking last fall to defeat Trump, and to prepare for a contested election. The organization has also worked on reforming Cleveland’s city council, and organized around a civilian police review board. Of course, they’re also getting the vote out for Nina Turner. “We’ve got these ‘I’m vaccinated’ buttons that people can wear when they go out and canvass to show people when they’re at the door,” she said. “And we’ve got people from across the country sending out postcards.”

Despite its struggles, Turner said that the value of OR and the Sanders campaign was that “it made people believe that politics could bend towards the will of the everyday person.” And to OR members in Ohio, Morgan said, Turner continues that practice. “When we send someone to Congress, it’s going to have to be someone who’s really going to go there and fight for us.”

Nina Turner campaigns to represent the Ohio district where she has spent most of her life. (Mike Ferguson / The American Prospect)

THE SQUAD MEMBERS HAVE ALL endorsed Turner in the crowded 11th District primary, with 13 candidates scheduled to square off on August 3. So have a long list of unions, and progressive groups like the Working Families Party, MoveOn, Justice Democrats, and of course Our Revolution, the Sanders campaign spinoff she used to run.

But so have several mainstream Democrats, including Cleveland’s mayor, Frank Jackson, and a string of state and local legislators. Turner’s disinterest in calling herself a socialist may have cost her Cleveland Democratic Socialists of America’s endorsement, but Akron DSA endorsed her anyway. She came up through the Democratic Party mainstream—even dabbling in pro–charter school “education reform” while in the state Senate—but took the last four years to devote herself to building its left and to reforming its institutions. While her campaign ads still call for Medicare for All and other positions to the left of President Biden, she’s toned down her criticisms of him to a degree, and tried to focus on running a campaign that will fire up progressives around policy rather than by attacking the establishment wing.

Perhaps more than any of Sanders’s other prominent supporters, Turner has paid a price for her move to the left. From the moment she announced the congressional run, there was a call for “Anybody but Nina” to oppose her for Fudge’s seat. “That gave me some pause,” she said. ‘Damn, really?! Anybody but me?!’”

When we spoke, she’d been recently stung by insinuations that her position on Israel would hurt her relationship with her Jewish constituents. (Turner has spoken out against anti-BDS laws, though she is not a BDS supporter; she had approvingly retweeted an action by anti-occupation Jewish organization IfNotNow; she supports placing conditions on military aid to Israel—none of which are extreme positions but which place her certainly outside of the lockstep support for Israel that is one of the last bipartisan positions in D.C.)

Her main opponent, Shontel Brown, has been endorsed by Democratic Majority for Israel and has swiped at Turner over it. Four pro-Israel Democrats backed Brown as well, and in late June DMFI planned a super PAC ad against Turner. “They hit people like me, [Jamaal] Bowman in New York, Ilhan Omar,” Turner said. “It is very disheartening to me because I am a freedom fighter through and through.” But once again, Turner’s instincts are more aligned with where the public is going: This spring and summer have seen the largest pro-Palestine demonstrations in America in recent memory.

More recently, Brown received an endorsement from perhaps the only figure in politics more polarizing than Turner: Hillary Clinton. Within 24 hours of that announcement, Turner had raised over $100,000 online, the campaign’s largest single-day fundraising haul, with an average donation of $22. Meanwhile, senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus and a PAC made up of corporate lobbyists have been raising money for Brown at high-dollar events.

And on the heels of Clinton’s endorsement, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), number three in House leadership and the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, stepped in to endorse Brown. While he denied that his decision to make the rare endorsement was about Turner, he did decry “sloganeering” from the left, particularly “defund the police,” which, he said, is “cutting the throats of the party.” Turner also raised over $100,000 online overnight, after the Clyburn news.

Turner’s campaign polling had her well out in front of the pack as of early June, a combination of name recognition, a strong ground game (the office was packed with volunteers on the chilly May morning I visited), and a national fundraising base. But she and her staff were taking nothing for granted. “Because of the whole ‘Anybody but Nina’ thing, there will be independent expenditures well over a million dollars,” she told me. Her campaign is looking to raise up to $6 million and potentially more to push back on attacks; they are more than halfway there. “There are very few people who can actually run for Congress because most people will never be able to raise that level of money,” she said. “So how is that in service to our democracy? [We need] public financing of campaigns, period.”

None of the crises Turner was facing when she last held office have gone away. They’ve been joined by a whole new crisis: COVID-19, and its exposure of the cracks in our economic and social systems. But the pandemic can be, Turner noted, an opportunity to change things for the better. The free vaccines, for example, could be the beginning of an experiment in publicly provided health care. “I often say, ‘There is promise in the problem,’” she said. “We’ve got to use this crisis to go big.”

Nina Turner makes the rounds at an event held by local religious groups giving away free gasoline. (Mike Ferguson / The American Prospect)

MAY 8 WAS COLD AND GRAY in Cleveland. But Turner, wrapped in a black leather trench coat, bounced from person to person in her platform Converse high-tops, all energy as she gave masked-up hugs and elbow bumps to supporters by a van with a spinning marquee of her face on top. We were at “Gas on God,” an event held by local religious groups giving away free gasoline, and Turner was making the rounds.

In the gas line, someone handed an iPhone through the window to Turner so she could greet the person on the other end of a FaceTime call. She jogged alongside the car as they rolled into place at the pump. She posed for selfies with members of Christian motorcycle clubs in matching monogrammed leather, and greeted her supporters holding signs along the side of the road by name. “Vote for me, I have the courage to ask for more,” she told a smartphone video.

“Given COVID,” she noted later, “I felt really good to be out there. We’re in my community and just to feel that love from people … Some of those people I knew, some of those people I have never seen before, but the energy was palpable and it was what I needed.”

District 11, and Cleveland in particular, is a microcosm of American decline. A once-rich city—Standard Oil began there, and iron and steel production dominated during its heyday—it now ranks as the poorest big city in America. As a Black woman from the Rust Belt, Turner knows firsthand that while the fallout from deindustrialization hit everyone, it struck the Black community first. Akshai Singh, a member of Cleveland DSA and local organizer, noted that it’s still a struggle to turn health care and education jobs—the closest thing to a replacement for long-gone heavy industry—into good union jobs that provide a real living.

Activists in the area who spoke with me independently of the Turner campaign described a stagnant city political machine and a police force that continues to brutalize people. Cleveland was where a police officer shot Tamir Rice, and where battles continue over a federal consent decree instituted in 2015 over the police department’s “pattern or practice of using excessive force.”

Chrissy Stonebraker-Martínez, an organizer with the InterReligious Task Force for Human Rights on Central America and Colombia, noted that despite Cleveland’s long history of left-wing organizing, activists are often struggling just to achieve the basics. “We spent the entire year post-uprising fighting for public comment at city council meetings because we don’t even have public comment.”

Aisia Jones, a Black Lives Matter organizer who recently announced her run for Cleveland City Council, pointed to the need for emergency services that don’t immediately route to police. “Cleveland is poor. Period,” Jones said. “How can we make a better atmosphere for us? That has to do with better public safety and public health, better city services, more opportunities for recreation, more opportunities for jobs, youth programming, senior programming.” Revitalization without gentrification, without displacement of the people who’ve stayed in Cleveland, she said, has to be the goal.

Jones is enthusiastic about Turner’s campaign, and about potentially working with her. “She’s more real than I thought. She was just like, ‘I don’t have all the answers, but you tell me what I can do for you. You tell me what we can work on together.’” Stonebraker-Martínez was more hesitant, but noted that Turner “has gone out on a limb for progressive policies at risk to herself, at risk to her career.” Many elected officials, they noted, tend to be more progressive domestically than they are on international issues—they pointed to the ongoing protests in Colombia, and the United States’ funding of security forces there. “Those are the things that I’m concerned about with Nina, but I’m also grateful,” they said, “that if she is elected, we can go into her office and talk about these things. Right now, we can’t even do that.”

In another part of Cleveland, Turner sat down with local elected officials who’d endorsed her at Bob-N-Sheri’s Fortyniner, an old-school diner with Rock-Ola jukeboxes at the counter. (Its owners are supporters.) The breakfast included the mayors of Newburgh Heights and University Heights, two Cleveland suburbs, as well as two state representatives and a member of Newburgh Heights’ council. The meeting was part informal catch-up session, part strategy discussion, over eggs and grits.

“How do we change the system so it feels like a system for all of us?” asked Juanita O. Brent, who represents Ohio House District 12. “People are scared that the floor is going to fall out.” Stephanie Howse, who represents the neighboring District 11, agreed: “There was a pandemic before the pandemic.” And things, they all noted, were about to get worse for those on the wrong side of the unequal recovery. Republican governors began cutting unemployment benefits in June, and the CDC’s eviction moratorium expires at the end of July. While Democrats failed to act, Turner explained, their opponents keep people in “struggle mode,” where they can’t think beyond day-to-day needs.

“People deserve to enjoy their lives,” she concluded. “The whole attitude of the power class is that poor people, working people don’t deserve to enjoy their lives.”

IF NINA TURNER HEADS TO CONGRESS in the fall, she’ll be doing so with a lot of pressure to make things happen, in a city and an institution where so often nothing happens. She’s very aware of the sense of urgency, saying, “When Democrats win, peoples’ lives should change.” Yet she’d be one member in a body of 435 where your voice is often determined by your seniority.

Turner has a laundry list of issues she wants to work on: police reform, jobs and higher wages, Medicare for All, public education after a pandemic. She pointed to a recent report that found that residents in two Cleveland-area census tracts just two miles apart had a stunning 23-year difference in life expectancy.

She’s also thinking about that looming housing crisis. “I want to marry the Green New Deal with housing,” she said, suggesting money allocated under that framework could be used to restore the abandoned homes that dot the city in an energy-efficient manner, and then help local people to buy them. “The Green New Deal means putting people back to work in a way that’s viable for them and their family, making the communities that they live in beautiful.” And as part of that project, she said, it’s important to make sure people are paid well enough to have free time. “To me,” she said, “quality of life means I get to smell the roses from time to time and that there are some roses that I can smell.”

These are big ideas and there certainly isn’t a majority in Congress supporting them yet. But Turner’s time at Our Revolution has given her some experience working with grassroots organizers to press elected officials to act. Those relationships can help when it comes to internal party fights, she noted, pushing Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema who have stonewalled voting rights changes or minimum-wage increases. “There’s something to be said about stepping into their turf and starting to organize those people because people are suffering in their state, too.”

She spoke of “awakening sleeping giants,” the way that Ohioans came together to defeat Senate Bill 5, the measure that stripped collective-bargaining rights away from public-sector workers in 2011. To overturn that measure, she said, it took unions and activists, but they also had to get the message across to non-union workers that the next time the legislature overstepped, it could come for them. “We have to try to get that back, that sense that no matter what happens in this state, in my district, in the state, in this nation, in some way we are all interconnected,” she said. “If my air is dirty, so is yours. If my water is dirty, so is yours. If your daughter or son doesn’t have a job and that impacts your household, it impacts mine.”

That’s where Turner’s style, while abrasive to mainstream Democrats, holds a lesson for them. Ultimately, she wants to invite regular people to join her in fighting for progressive ideas. For years, Democrats have had trouble defining themselves to the broader electorate. Turner has mined the activist movement space and found a coherent message that resonates with working-class people in a bellwether state. Beyond the Clinton-Sanders wars, that’s something all sides could take away.

Republicans, Turner noted, “don’t play” when they have power, and Democrats should take that lesson from them if none other. That sense of urgency is too often lacking in the party. “When are we going to learn? Republicans plan for the long term,” she said. “What can we do right now before the next election cycle and get it done and go big? Because power is fleeting. You’ve got to use it while you’ve got it.”

[Sarah Jaffe is the author of ‘Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt’ and ‘Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Leaves Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone.’]

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