Nina Turner’s Dark Money Pledge Sparks Accusation Of Hypocrisy

The former Ohio state senator previously ran a progressive group that technically raised “dark money.”

Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator turned progressive icon, is calling on her rivals in the Democratic special election primary for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District to join her in swearing off “corporate special interest dollars funneled through super PACs and Dark Money groups.”

But Turner’s top rival, Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown, is accusing her of hypocrisy, noting that Turner previously led Our Revolution, a left-leaning group whose fundraising structure does not require it to disclose its donors.

Although Our Revolution voluntarily discloses large donors, Brown, who also chairs the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, argues that it is a “dark money” group.

“While I was working to elect Democrats up and down the ticket right here in northeast Ohio, Nina Turner was running a national organization fueled by dark money that was not even committed to electing Democrats,” Brown told HuffPost in a statement.

Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, left, leads Shontel Brown, a Cuyahoga County councilwoman, in direct fundraising. Brown has the backing of a major super PAC.
Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, left, leads Shontel Brown, a Cuyahoga County councilwoman, in direct fundraising. Brown has the backing of a major super PAC.
Getty Images/Facebook

Our Revolution indeed backs progressive candidates in Democratic primaries regardless of their party affiliation. In 2020, the group endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ second presidential run. The independent, who is a member of the Senate Democratic Caucus, founded Our Revolution after his first presidential run in 2016.

But Our Revolution has never supported third-party candidates in general elections or otherwise sought to undermine the Democratic Party.

Rather than address the specific questions about Our Revolution, Kara Turrentine, a spokesperson for Turner’s campaign, emphasized that the pledge is designed to root out the influence of corporations and wealthy donors trying to advance policies that increase their profits at the public’s expense.

“Our campaign issued this pledge because Nina Turner is committed to a new type of politics where the people ― not corporate Big Money interests ― determine the outcome of elections,” Turrentine said.

Turner’s campaign did not clarify whether it would rule out external support from progressive groups, labor unions and super PACs that it does not see as representing “corporate Big Money interests.”

As an Ohio state senator from 2008 to 2014, Turner accepted donations from corporate political action committees.

Unlike her opponents in the Democratic congressional primary, however, Turner has now sworn off contributions from corporate PACs.

“We knew it was coming, but it is always disappointing that so early in the race one of her opponents would go negative by attacking her for carrying on a people-powered, people-funded campaign,” Turrentine said. “She has committed to running a campaign without the support of corporate Big Money interests and she stands by that position.”

Still, the immediate pushback to Turner’s pledge illustrates the challenges for left-wing politicians and groups trying to maintain the moral high ground in campaign-finance debates.

Since progressive groups refuse to unilaterally disarm, and big-dollar left-wing donors sometimes demand anonymity, progressive candidates associated with these groups and donors are sometimes vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy or inconsistency.

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) faced a similar nuisance during the 2020 presidential primary, when several left-wing groups, including Justice Democrats, used a 501(c)4 political nonprofit to fund attack advertisements against then-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg.

Unlike ordinary campaign contributions and even super PACs, federal law allows 501(c)4 groups to conceal the identities of their donors. That led Buttigieg, in particular, to solicit donations from his email list by lamenting that he needed to even the scales against Sanders’ “dark money.”

Our Revolution is also a 501(c)4, but on its website, the group lists the names of donors who have contributed more than $250.

These voluntary disclosures have their limits. There is no way of independently verifying the data, and the listings are not as comprehensive as traditional campaign finance disclosures, which also reveal donors’ occupations and places of residence.

Beyond debates about transparency, though, leftists maintain that when progressive groups and labor unions use super PACs and 501(c)4 nonprofits to advance causes that benefit the broader population, it is simply not morally equivalent to the actions of a small subset of wealthy donors or ideologues.

“She has committed to running a campaign without the support of corporate Big Money interests and she stands by that position.”

- Kara Turrentine, spokesperson, Nina Turner campaign

That’s especially true, these leftists argue, given that left-wing groups are the ones pushing for more radical overhauls of the campaign finance systems than their counterparts on the center-left or center-right.

“There is a certain argument to make that it takes dark money to extricate dark money,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, an anti-corruption group housed at the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research.

During Turner’s tenure as president of Our Revolution, the organization used its money to fund grassroots progressive activism, rather than massive advertising blitzes of the kind normally associated with big-money groups.

In 2017, the year Turner ascended to the helm, Our Revolution’s biggest expenditures were a $100,000 contribution to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee for a candidate training the two groups co-hosted, and $243,000 to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota for an “environmental event.” (Our Revolution supported the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s efforts to stop construction of a natural gas pipeline through its tribal lands.)

Brown, the early favorite of the Cleveland establishment and deep-pocketed pro-Israel groups, has a political incentive not to renounce outside spending of any kind.

Although Brown’s campaign has raised a fraction of the money Turner has brought in, she has the support of the Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel super PAC that seeks to shield the Israeli government from tougher conditions on U.S. aid and other policies favored by more progressive Democrats.

Since its inception in January 2019, DMFI has spent millions of dollars to buttress moderate Democrats in competitive primaries. Like many outside groups, it is more willing to attack the progressive opponents of its preferred candidates than the candidates themselves, sparing the moderate contenders the baggage associated with “going negative” on their own.

For her part, Turner, who is by far the field’s top fundraiser, stands to benefit from a selective crackdown on outside cash that might shield her from attacks drawing attention to politically inconvenient comments she has made.

Turner has given her opponents until Friday to respond to her pledge. Brown has signaled no intention of signing to it.

Turner, Brown and five other Democrats are competing for the chance to succeed Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge in the 11th District. Biden’s nomination of Fudge for the Cabinet role in December sparked an immediate scramble to fill her open seat, which includes Eastern Cleveland, its suburbs and part of Akron.

The special primary election for Ohio’s 11th, which has become yet another proxy battle between the Democratic Party’s warring wings, is due to take place on Aug. 3.

Given the overwhelmingly Democratic tilt of the district, the party’s nominee is the heavy favorite to hold the seat in the special general election this Nov. 2.

Below is the complete text of the campaign-finance pledge Turner is asking her opponents to sign on to:

We, as candidates for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District Special Election, believe it is in the best interest of our community and our democracy for campaigns to be funded transparently and in accordance with federal campaign contribution limits ― not with Big Money, Corporate special interest dollars funneled through super PACs and Dark Money groups. We disavow the support of any such groups and will demand they cease their efforts. This pledge ensures the voters get the final say about who will serve as the next congressperson for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District.

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