Ohio Election Tests The Left’s Strength In Establishment Stronghold

Former state Sen. Nina Turner, top Cleveland Democrat Shontel Brown and other moderates are vying to succeed Rep. Marcia Fudge.

President Joe Biden’s selection of Rep. Marcia Fudge to serve as housing secretary has sparked a scramble among divergent factions of the Democratic Party to fill her solid blue seat in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District.

The activist left has united behind former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, while the Cleveland-area Democratic establishment is coalescing behind Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown, who also chairs the county Democratic Party.

Former state Sens. Shirley Smith and Jeff Johnson, and former state Rep. John Barnes Jr. ― all of whom resemble Brown ideologically ― are also contesting the seat.

The Democratic special election primary, which is all but certain to determine the overall winner, is expected to take place in May (the state is waiting for Fudge to be confirmed and to formally vacate the seat before officially announcing the election date).

The race’s outcome will either solidify the left’s status as a growing force on Capitol Hill ― or show that the same traditional Democrats who made Biden the party’s standard-bearer can still hold the line against one of the progressive movement’s biggest stars.

“This is really a proxy for what’s happening with the Democratic Party nationally,” said David Cohen, an Ohio politics expert at the University of Akron.

Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, left, has the support of progressive activists, while Shontel Brown, a Cuyahoga County councilwoman, enjoys establishment backing.
Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, left, has the support of progressive activists, while Shontel Brown, a Cuyahoga County councilwoman, enjoys establishment backing.
Getty Images/Facebook

‘Untested Terrain For The Left’

The heart of Ohio’s 11th is in the city of Cleveland and its prosperous eastern suburbs. But the district, gerrymandered by Republicans to sink as many Democratic votes as possible, also includes part of the city of Akron nearly 40 miles to the south and some of the exurban communities in between the two cities.

The diverse district is 53% Black and boasts small but significant Latino and Asian populations as well. While the exact boundaries of the district have changed over the years, its status as a hub for Black political power has persisted. Louis Stokes, an attorney and World War II veteran who was the first Black member of Congress from Ohio, held the seat, as did Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Ohio’s first Black prosecutor.

Fudge is not a fence-sitting moderate. She is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a co-sponsor of Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s “Medicare for All” bill. Fudge originally sought to become secretary of agriculture in the Biden administration because of her work expanding access to food stamps and fighting food insecurity in impoverished communities.

But Fudge is also a loyal ally of Democratic Party leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). Like other Ohio Democrats, she endorsed Hillary Clinton early on in the 2016 election cycle. Turner, who was part of the Ready for Hillary initiative encouraging Clinton to run, ended up rallying to Sanders’ side.

In Turner, the voters of Ohio’s 11th likely have their first real opportunity to send an anti-establishment firebrand to Washington, according to Cohen.

“It’s completely untested terrain for the left,” Cohen said.

Turner’s early support for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run and her charismatic speaking style have turned her into a national icon on the left. She was a favorite opener at Sanders rallies during both of his bids, punctuating her homilies against poverty and racism with her signature phrase, “hello somebody.”

In September, Turner announced the launch of an all-purpose public relations shop under the auspices of Mercury, a bipartisan megafirm with plenty of corporate clients.

If Turner’s career move, complete with an open-for-business appeal to “political, corporate and nonprofit” clients, raised doubts among Turner’s allies on the left, they haven’t shown it.

“I would like to think people would judge me by my entire body of work and not just a colorful comment I made that they disagreed with.”

- Nina Turner, former Ohio state senator

On the contrary, Turner’s network of progressive supporters has come through for her in a big way since she announced her run in December. As of the start of the month, Turner had raised more than $1 million. She also quickly locked in the endorsements of leading progressive lawmakers, including Sanders, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, and Reps. Cori Bush (Mo.) and Ro Khanna (Calif.).

Turner is running on a now-standard list of left-wing proposals made famous by Sanders. She supports Medicare for All, tuition-free public college, canceling all student debt, and a Green New Deal. And although Turner’s husband and son are both cops, she has defended the slogan “defund the police,” telling The Hill in June that it reflects a commitment to rooting out racism in all facets of society, and that the police “don’t need more money.”

“There is a need in this district and also in this country for members of Congress to stand up and not equivocate in terms of pushing for the policies that change the material conditions of the people of this nation,” she said.

Turner would undoubtedly join the “Squad” of ultra-progressive House members, strengthening a bloc within the Congressional Progressive Caucus that has been willing to play hardball with Speaker Pelosi on matters ranging from immigration policy to COVID-19 relief.

But Turner, 53, is not simply a wide-eyed idealist running to blow up the system from within.

She boasts what many progressive upstart campaigns lack: legislative experience and the mainstream political relationships that come with it. She served in the Ohio state Senate from 2008 to 2014, where she rose to the rank of minority whip, and she has the backing of her successor, state Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Kenny Yuko, as well as state Sen. Sandra Williams and Gigi Traore, the first Black person elected to the Newburgh Heights Village Council.

What’s more, Brown, Turner’s most formidable rival, had only raised $40,000 as of the end of 2020.

“Turner is certainly not an amateur,” Cohen said. “She’s really quite well-known in the city of Cleveland.”

Although Nina Turner is best known as a left-wing ally to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), she also developed a working relationship with then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), pictured above.
Although Nina Turner is best known as a left-wing ally to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), she also developed a working relationship with then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), pictured above.
Donna Carson / Reuters

Contrasting Approaches To Governance?

Of course, fame and experience also expose Turner to scrutiny. Her tenure as president of Our Revolution, the political nonprofit that emerged out of Sanders’ 2016 run, included its share of electoral triumphs. But it was also marked by internal dissension and confusion about the organization’s mission.

And during Turner’s two tours of duty on the Sanders campaign, she developed a reputation for combative rhetoric sometimes at odds with the tone set by Sanders himself. This past July, Turner appeared to liken the choice between Trump and Biden to the choice between a “bowl of shit” and “half a bowl of shit.”

Turner told HuffPost that her comments were directed not at Biden, but at Democrats who sold Biden to reluctant voters as the least bad option, rather than making a positive case for his candidacy.

“I would like to think people would judge me by my entire body of work and not just a colorful comment I made that they disagreed with,” she added. “If the current vice president and the current president could lock arms and walk into an administration together after the first debate when Sen. Harris called [Biden] out on busing … surely a colorful comment made by me speaking to people’s pain is not even a blip on the screen.”

Without saying it explicitly though, Shontel Brown, 45, and her growing list of prominent endorsers ― a who’s-who of local elected officials, machine bosses, union leaders and pastors ― are betting that Turner’s bomb-throwing rhetoric, independence from the party and left-wing positions are more than the voters of the 11th can stomach.

“I’m going to be a partner to the Biden-Harris administration ― not be a thorn in their side,” Brown told HuffPost.

In keeping with that promise, Brown’s policy stances are identical to the relatively moderate ones on which Biden ran: a public health insurance option, a climate change plan that phases in more gradually than the Green New Deal, a public college plan limited to families earning less than $125,000 a year, and the cancelation of $10,000 in student debt, but not all of it.

In many ways, Brown’s life story and career mirror Turner’s. Both women hail from working-class backgrounds and obtained associate’s degrees from Cuyahoga Community College as adults. Turner went on to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees, returning to community college to teach and breaking into politics as an aide to then-state Sen. Rhine McLin in 2001.

Brown became a successful marketing professional and got involved in local Warrensville Heights politics after growing frustrated by quality-of-life nuisances like litter. She calls herself a “protégée” of Fudge: The former mayor of Warrensville Heights endorsed Brown’s first council run in the inner-ring suburb they both call home. (Fudge has yet to endorse in the congressional race.)

Later in their careers, Turner and Brown’s paths diverged. As Turner hitched her fortunes to Sanders’ star, Brown stuck to the traditional path for aspiring Cleveland Democrats: advancing in the ranks of local government and Democratic Party leadership. With Fudge’s support, Brown won a 2017 race to become the first woman and the first Black person to chair the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.

Nowadays, the two women’s contrasting approaches to governance are as evident in their demeanor as their policy positions. While both Ohioans are devout Christians, only Turner speaks with the impassioned timbre of a preacher on a moral mission.

“Sales is kind of in my DNA.”

- Shontel Brown, chair, Cuyahoga County Democratic Party

Brown, by contrast, tends to speak about her background in less moralistic terms, recalling how selling candy as a child on the school bus presaged her entrepreneurial spirit.

“Sales is kind of in my DNA,” she chuckled. “Those skills transitioned seamlessly into politics. You have to be a good listener and a problem solver for both.”

Brown counts among her accomplishments the oversight of $200 million in COVID-19 relief funds and a leading role in an overhaul of Cuyahoga County’s contracting system that sought to increase the number of contracts that went to minority-owned firms.

Brown’s boosters make the case that her comfort with insider politicking is just what a district beset by racial and economic inequity needs. That’s particularly true, Brown’s allies maintain, when Fudge assumes the reins of a Cabinet agency directly relevant to the challenges facing Cleveland and Akron.

“I look at who is best to capitalize on that and who can help us advance to our fullest potential,” said Jeff Rusnak, a Democratic consultant who chaired Sanders’ 2016 campaign in Ohio but is now backing Brown over Turner. “I don’t think there’s a question about that.”

Recent Democratic presidential primary results in the district suggest that this argument might find a receptive audience. When Ohio held its primary election in March 2016, Sanders was still running a competitive race against Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Clinton defeated him among the district’s voters, 68% to 32%.

But Turner and her allies dispute the notion that she is more concerned with ideological purity than effecting change. Rather than run as an enemy of Democratic leaders, Turner told HuffPost she simply plans to be a “thorn in the side of injustice.”

Indeed, Turner’s career in the Ohio legislature paints the picture of a results-oriented maverick who bucked party leaders when necessary but also collaborated with adversaries when possible. As a new state senator in 2009, Turner broke with the Democratic establishment, including many Black Democrats, to back a successful referendum streamlining Cuyahoga County’s governance structure. The Cleveland Plain Dealer gushed at the time that Turner had a “bright future due to [her] gutsy stance” on the issue.

Turner became an outspoken proponent of a statewide referendum in 2011 that overturned an anti-union law backed by then-Republican Gov. John Kasich. The bill would have severely restricted public-sector workers’ collective bargaining rights.

Turner’s active role in that fight is what earned her the loyalty of her successor, Yuko, a former union construction worker and organizer who was then a state representative.

“Everywhere I went, there was Sen. Nina Turner,” he recalled.

“She can relate to people whether they’re Black, whether they’re white, whether they’re rich, whether they’re poor,” added Yuko, who is white.

At the same time, Turner found common ground with Kasich in 2014. She and a group of other Black lawmakers pressed Kasich to address police misconduct and racism following the police killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy who held a toy gun. With Turner’s blessing, Kasich ended up convening a statewide task force to restore trust between police and communities of color.

“She was a major part of our efforts to reform community-police relations,” said Jim Lynch, a spokesperson for Kasich. “They have a great relationship.”

Rep. Marcia Fudge meets with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres in Feb. 2014. U.S.-Israel policy has become an issue in the race to succeed Fudge.
Rep. Marcia Fudge meets with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres in Feb. 2014. U.S.-Israel policy has become an issue in the race to succeed Fudge.
Rep. Marcia Fudge/Facebook

The Israel Factor

The nature of the special election is likely to work in Turner’s favor. Off-year elections have historically been low-turnout affairs. That could ease the path to victory for a candidate like Turner whose highly engaged supporters may be more inclined to show up at the polls.

But efforts to turn the race into a referendum on U.S. policy toward Israel could awaken a bloc of equally engaged pro-Israel voters more likely to gravitate toward Brown. Jewish residents, concentrated in suburbs like Shaker Heights and Beachwood, make up 5% of the population in Ohio’s 11th, more than twice the share of the national population. The district is home to the largest Jewish community in Ohio, and many of its members are disproportionately active in local Democratic politics.

Brown is already emerging as the preferred candidate of the right-leaning pro-Israel lobby, which has fundraised prodigiously in recent years to boost more moderate candidates in Democratic primaries. Jewish Insider reported on Thursday that Pro-Israel America, a political action committee founded by former leaders of the influential American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, is endorsing Brown.

Pro-Israel America raised over $440,000 for a Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) in August. The group’s endorsement of Brown could bestow similar financial benefits for the Cuyahoga County lawmaker.

Democratic Majority for Israel, a super PAC that has spent millions of dollars supporting moderates and attacking left-wing Democrats in other primaries, also announced it was endorsing Brown on Tuesday.

Brown, who visited Israel in 2008 on a trip sponsored by an AIPAC-affiliated group, waxed poetic about her appreciation for Israel’s Christian holy sites and its “vibrant democracy.”

Asked whether she supports placing tougher conditions on U.S. aid to Israel with the goal of nudging Israel away from settlement expansion and other policies, Brown said, “That’s not how you treat allies and friends.”

When asked by Jewish Insider, Turner declined to tell Jewish Insider how she feels about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement directed at the Israeli government, while affirming that its supporters are protected by the right to freedom of speech. She did tell the outlet that she supports tying U.S. aid to policy changes by the Israeli government.

“For 60 years, the Congress has said that our foreign assistance should respect human rights in any country,” she said.

Left to right: Shirley Smith, John Barnes Jr., and Jeff Johnson resemble Shontel Brown ideologically, but believe they would represent the district better.
Left to right: Shirley Smith, John Barnes Jr., and Jeff Johnson resemble Shontel Brown ideologically, but believe they would represent the district better.
Facebook/Jeff Johnson for Congress

Divided Moderates

Notwithstanding the growing establishment support Brown enjoys, competition from other moderate candidates could complicate her shot at a win.

Smith, Johnson and Barnes are all running on platforms that resemble Brown’s ― complete with promises to work closely with the Biden administration and build consensus to deliver results for constituents.

Johnson, a 62-year-old attorney, served a brief stint in prison for extortion in 2000, after being caught shaking down businesses during his tenure in the state Senate.

He later regained his law license and was elected to the Cleveland City Council. He currently works as the court administrator for the Cleveland housing court and believes he is the candidate best equipped to combat racial and economic inequity.

Unlike the other moderate candidates, Johnson has categorically ruled out receiving donations from corporate PACs. He is also open to joining the Congressional Progressive Caucus, though he is not seeking the group’s endorsement.

“We probably agree more times than we disagree,” he said of the bloc of left-leaning lawmakers.

“I don’t owe anybody anything.”

- Shirley Smith, former Ohio state senator

Barnes, 62, a business consultant and former state representative, points with pride to a bipartisan 2017 bill he shepherded making it easier for drivers to regain drivers’ licenses revoked due to the drivers’ inability to pay fines.

“I have the greatest level of experience and the greatest track record of delivery,” Barnes said. “I’m interested in not only the partisan answer but the right answer.”

Smith, 70, a former beverage company executive and state senator, suggested that Brown’s lack of a four-year college degree undermines her candidacy.

“It would be difficult for Shontel to make decisions on education because she hasn’t gone that far in education,” Smith said.

Smith is trying to chart a path between Turner and Brown by attacking both as beholden to entrenched special interests ― Turner to the activist left and Brown to the corrupt Cuyahoga County machine.

“I don’t owe anybody anything. And I don’t have any strong loyalties,” said Smith, who later explained that she plans to vet corporate PAC donations on a case-by-case basis rather than adopt a categorical stance for or against them. “It is really time for somebody to serve the people, to make people number one.”

Both Smith and Johnson have called on Brown to resign from her role as chairwoman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, arguing that it provides her with an unfair advantage.

For example, as party chair, Brown’s name and photo were on a new year’s greeting that the county party mailed to Democrats across the district, helping raise her profile without requiring her to spend campaign funds.

Brown has no plans to resign from the position. It is common for Democratic Party officials to run for other elected offices, and she says the “double standard” against her reflects a bias against young Black women. (All five candidates in the Democratic field are Black.)

“It’s disappointing to be attacked for the accomplishments that should be celebrated particularly during Black History Month,” she said. “But it only amplifies the challenges, especially the double standards that occur when you are a young, Black woman in leadership.”

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