CLEVELAND ― With three days to go before a special election that both the moderate Democratic establishment and the progressive left see as a referendum on the future of the Democratic Party, key national spokespeople for each faction converged on Cleveland to pitch voters on their preferred candidates.
Alongside a cast of state and local elected officials and rank-and-file activists, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, and public intellectual Cornel West made the case to a rally of some 900 people that electing former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District is an essential next step in the fight for a more just and equitable country.
Sanders began by offering a variety of reasons he might have come to speak on Turner’s behalf, including his loyalty to her as a friend and his admiration for her personality.
Then he revealed a more important factor. “The real reason I am here ― and I speak as chairperson of the Senate Budget Committee ― is we desperately need her in the U.S. Congress,” he declared to loud cheers.
Sanders went on to elaborate what he meant: that Turner, a seasoned Ohio politician-turned-Sanders ally, would fight alongside Sanders and other left-leaning lawmakers to wring every possible inch of progress out of Democrats’ control of the White House and Congress.
With her help ― and occasional pressure ― Sanders vowed, President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats would, among other things, make the expanded child tax credit permanent, adopt universal pre-K and paid family leave, and create a civilian climate corps to combat climate change and create good-paying jobs.
Sanders then yielded the floor to Turner, who demonstrated her commitment to that agenda with the gusto that made her a favorite campaign surrogate of Sanders supporters during his 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries.
“When I think about my two grandbabies that came out on stage, and my son, I do think about making America as good as its promise,” Turner said. “And I’m not just doing that for mine ― I want yours and yours and yours and yours and yours and yours. We can’t leave anybody out! All of us together.”
A few hours later at the Grace Missionary Baptist Church several miles east of downtown, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty (Ohio), House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (Miss.), and Rep. Gregory Meeks (N.Y.) delivered an equally urgent pitch in favor of Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown.
“Why are they spending all of that money on little old me? ... They like the way things are now.”
But their case for Brown, a more moderate Democrat seeking the party’s nomination for the congressional seat, could not have been more different than the progressive headliners’ case for Turner.
Neither the senior Black members of Congress nor Brown said much about Brown’s policy proposals.
Instead, they cast her as a person of faith and integrity capable of expanding the cohesion and power of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Meeks, chairman of the CBC’s political action committee, noted that the CBC has reached both an unprecedented size and level of influence, counting 58 members, six of whom chair House committees.
“We’re talking about power,” he said. “We need somebody to build on to that power, collectively building that base, to make sure that tomorrow is better than today.”
Another major theme of their speeches was the need for a member of Congress worthy of succeeding the legendary Black lawmakers who have represented Cleveland in the House since the 1960s: Louis Stokes, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, and Marcia Fudge, whose selection as Housing and Urban Development secretary created the vacancy that Turner and Brown are competing to fill.
“Stephanie Tubbs Jones took Marcia and I, because Lou Stokes mentored us. So you see it tells you to bring up the child,” Beatty said. “So I’m here today to bring up the child. I’m here today to bring up Shontel Brown.”
All of the members characterized Tuesday’s election as a high-stakes battle with major consequences for the district, a message that Brown reiterated in her brief remarks.
“As you heard from the members, the nation is watching us,” she said. “The nation is watching us so I feel the weight, but I am a child of faith so I trust God.”
Reading through the lines, though, it was clear the lawmakers see electing Brown as such an urgent priority less because of their faith in her as a candidate ― though that faith appears sincere ― than because of their contempt for, and fear of, Turner.
Unlike Brown, whose core message has focused almost exclusively on her commitment to being a “partner” for Biden, Turner has spent the past five years forging an independent, and sometimes antagonistic, relationship with Democratic Party leaders.
Famously the least filtered of Sanders’ presidential campaign surrogates, Turner publicly entertained the idea in 2016 of accepting Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein’s offer to serve as her running mate. In July 2020, Turner likened the choice between President Donald Trump and Biden to deciding between a “bowl of shit” and “half” of that bowl.
Brown has been careful not to attack Turner directly for comments and actions that make some mainstream Democrats uncomfortable. She has not had to, though, because outside groups, especially the pro-Israel super PAC Democratic Majority for Israel, have spent millions of dollars on TV and digital ads casting Turner as a bad Democrat.
Turner and her allies have cast that onslaught ― and another effort by the corporate-funded Democratic think tank Third Way ― as a reflection of the threat that corporate America sees in her candidacy.
“Why are they spending all of that money on little old me?” Turner asked on Saturday to roaring applause from the crowd. Then she answered her own question: “They like the way things are now.”
Brown and her backers insist that Turner’s fractious relationship with party leaders is fair game regardless of who is funding efforts to inform voters about it. Without mentioning Turner by name, Beatty suggested that sending Turner to Congress would be tantamount to inviting an enemy into the military base camp.
“You don’t want somebody who’s going to say, ‘I’m not with you because it’s not about me,’ ‘I’m not with you because I don’t believe in what the party that’s in charge is doing.’ ‘I’m not with you because I don’t like the president of the United States’ ― that’s the president that the people put in the House!” Beatty said. “That’s why we need Shontel Brown.”
“The nation is watching us so I feel the weight, but I am a child of faith so I trust God.”
At its core, the senior CBC members’ grievances with Turner speak to a broader philosophical debate within the Democratic Party that has sometimes broken down along generational lines within the CBC.
The disagreement is partly ideological in that figures like Turner ― and Ellison, who was previously in the CBC ― genuinely support more social-democratic economic policies than their more centrist colleagues.
But it is also a debate over how to exercise power in Congress. Some Democrats believe any attempt to wield influence independent of a top-down party structure ― or caucus ― is a threat to the entire enterprise of effective lawmaking.
More progressive Democrats tend to believe that factional struggle ― in particular, the kind where left-leaning lawmakers press their moderate colleagues for concessions but are ultimately willing to compromise ― has helped the party accomplish more for its constituents.
Ellison brought the point home in his remarks on Saturday, turning Brown’s promises not to rock the boat into a flaw rather than a selling point.
“It is a very bad idea to say we just want somebody who is going to do whatever the president says,” Ellison said. “It’s not a good idea. Even if you love the president.”
“It is not the job of a member of Congress to be servile and obedient to the White House,” he added. “It is the job to obey the needs of the people of this district.”