INDEPENDENCE, Ohio ― After more than eight months of campaigning, former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner (D) is tired of worrying about what her establishment detractors think.
Speaking to an audience of progressive clergy members on Monday, Turner imitated the politicians and pundits who keep telling her to tone it down.
“‘Senator, don’t say this. Senator, don’t say that.’ Dammit ― I’m over it!” she declared to applause at an interfaith breakfast.
In fact, Turner welcomed the discomfort of her adversaries ― whether they are in Democratic Party leadership in Washington, or in the highest echelons of corporate America.
“We got some folks rattled,” Turner said. “But I’m glad they’re rattled. I want them to be uncomfortable.”
“Why is it that the poverty pimps get to be comfortable ― and the poor people uncomfortable?” she added. “Well, it’s time to make them uncomfortable. Hello somebody!”
On Tuesday, Turner will face off against Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown (D) in a special primary election to succeed Marcia Fudge, in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, a majority-Black seat that includes parts of Cleveland and Akron. The seat opened up when President Joe Biden tapped Fudge to serve as Housing and Urban Development Secretary.
Since the district skews so Democratic, the winner of the primary is all but assured of a place in Congress.
The race between Turner and Brown, which polling suggests is neck and neck, has become a battle between the Democratic Party’s progressive wing ― represented by Turner ― and the more moderate establishment, which is backing Brown.
“This race is everything,” said Yvette Simpson, CEO of the progressive group Democracy for America, which has endorsed Turner. Simpson, an attorney and former president pro tem of the Cincinnati city council, spoke to HuffPost after knocking doors for Turner in Cleveland’s Lee-Harvard neighborhood.
“Her winning this race will be seen as a bellwether for whether progressives can win,” Simpson said. “Now whether that’s true or not, that’s the way it’s being perceived.”
To maximize her chances of victory in a district that went for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries, Turner has sought to remind voters of her pragmatic work as a city councilwoman and state senator.
“She can be effective because she’s a savvy politician.”
She has also emphasized her background as a loyal Democrat in a bid to rebut her opponent’s claims to the contrary. For example, while Turner’s status as a leading surrogate for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns has made her a left-wing star, she made a point of noting in a recent TV ad that she served twice as a convention delegate for President Barack Obama.
Turner has even summoned an unlikely array of moderate validators, including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson (D) and Ohio state Senate Democratic Leader Kenny Yuko.
Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative known for tangling with Sanders supporters online, arrived in Cleveland on Monday for a day of campaigning on Turner’s behalf. He got to know Turner while they were both state lawmakers.
“I know how well she served in the legislative body. I know that she has that history and I know that she put people first,” Sellers told HuffPost. “She can be effective because she’s a savvy politician.”
“We don’t really have time for somebody who has to learn, and who wants to be out there for receptions,” he added. “We’ve got to have somebody who knows how to legislate.”
Earlier on in the campaign, it looked like Turner’s rebranding had paid off. Internal polls conducted by both her and Brown’s campaigns showed her leading by more than 30 percentage points as of the beginning of June.
But as Brown introduced herself to the electorate in TV ads, and Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), the pro-Israel super PAC supporting Brown, initiated its TV ad campaign at the end of June, Brown has surged to within striking distance of Turner.
DMFI, which has spent $1.9 million to elevate Brown and attack Turner, has shined a light on some of the controversy Turner his generated. By far the most polarizing example they invoke is a colorful metaphor that Turner used in July 2020 to describe the choice between then-President Donald Trump and then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Mervyn Jones II, a son of the district’s late former Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, cited Turner’s comments about Biden as part of his explanation for endorsing Brown.
“Those comments said to me and to a lot of other people: If you’re not willing to work with who’s in office, how are you going to get anything done?” said Jones, who is now a federal lobbyist.
Sellers, who called Turner after the July 2020 remarks to express his displeasure, nonetheless downplayed their significance.
“If you have a career like ours and you’ve been out here, you’ve made stupid comments before,” he said. “That’s not a stain on your entire career.”
Regardless, in the final weeks of the campaign, Brown and her allies have turned the race into a referendum on which candidate would be a better “partner” for President Biden. The rap artist “Killer Mike” Render’s assertion at a late June panel alongside Turner that Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) was “incredibly stupid” for not demanding more from Biden in exchange for his endorsement in the 2020 presidential primary added to the narrative that Turner was a gadfly and increased the determination of establishment Democrats to stop Turner. (Clyburn endorsed Brown shortly after the incident.)
A delegation of senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Clyburn and CBC Chairwoman Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), descended on Cleveland over the weekend to campaign for Brown.
“Great things have never happened of social, economic consequence without somebody being willing to go against the status quo and put something on the line.”
While the members praised Brown, it was clear that they were driven most of all by their wariness of Turner.
“I don’t think that’s conducive to our core values of respect,” Beatty told Politico, referring to Turner’s comments. “And so, I’d send a message back to Nina Turner: Don’t speak for the Congressional Black Caucus or me.”
Hours after the Politico article came out in the wee hours of Monday morning, Turner had evidently had enough of worrying about what Beatty or anyone else thinks about her rhetoric.
“I specialize in telling the truth on the right and on the left!” Turner vowed.
She praised Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a supporter, for her protest outside the U.S. Capitol in favor of extending the federal eviction moratorium, and condemned Democratic leaders for allowing members of Congress to return to their home districts for August recess without at least trying to remedy the situation.
“Folks went on vacation ― and then they got the nerve to question me!” she said.
Turner argued that her willingness to say occasionally provocative things only reflects the urgency with which she views the crises of poverty, racism and injustice.
“Folks who can sit back and say, ‘Man, she just don’t come at folks like that’ ― if you’ve got the privilege to sit back and judge how I come at folks, then you got a type of privilege,” Turner said. “You need to check yourself! You ain’t missing a meal. You’ve got a roof over your head.”
At bottom, Turner’s fighting spirit speaks to a disagreement among Democrats about whether to pursue change quietly and incrementally, or loudly and boldly ― not least when a Democrat is in the White House.
Turner and the many progressive lawmakers backing her believe that Americans, and especially Black Americans, have secured needed reforms only by confronting the powerful head-on and demanding justice.
“Great things have never happened of social, economic consequence without somebody being willing to go against the status quo and put something on the line,” Turner said. “The ancestors of Black folks made ‘good trouble,’ otherwise we’d still be in shackles and chains. Hello somebody!”
As for the moderate naysayers, Turner was unsparing.
“Those are the same people whether they understand it or not, whether they would admit it or not, that would be saying to our ancestors, ‘You’re moving too fast. You’re asking for too much. Y’all wanna be free?!’”