Sanders campaign alum Nina Turner is facing a crucial test for progressives in Ohio House race

Nina Turner, a top Bernie Sanders (I-VT) presidential campaign surrogate who is now running in Ohio's 11th congressional district special election, acknowledges “elitism” among her fellow Democrats.

“I've seen it myself,” Turner told The Uprising in a recent interview. ”But that ain't how I'm going to win somebody over, by saying, you know, ‘Hey, what's wrong with you?’”

In the race to fill the seat that became vacant when Marcia Fudge became President Biden’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Turner is running on an “opportunity agenda” that is based on “meeting people where they are” and “not insulting people.”

Due to her deep roots in the party’s so-called “Sanders wing” — she was by Sanders’ side during both the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns — Turner’s House campaign is widely seen as a key test of progressives’ strength in the Biden era. The primary, which will likely be decisive in a district where over 80 percent of voters backed Fudge, is set for August 3, making it one of the more interesting contests ahead of next year’s midterms.

‘People are in survival mode’

So far, Turner is making a strong showing in a crowded field of seven candidates.

Earlier this month, her campaign announced that she has raised $2.2 million. That haul was clearly boosted by the national following she developed stumping for Sanders with more cash coming from California than Ohio. Turner’s top rival, Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Chair Shontel Brown, has raised just $680,000 for her war chest. 

The district is an extraordinary example of gerrymandering with a chunk of Cleveland and a long narrow corridor that takes it down to Akron. This unique shape ensures the victor in the Democratic primary will almost certainly win the seat. 

According to pre-pandemic census data, over 22 percent of the district’s population is living below the poverty line. Turner said that “almost 50 percent of the families that live in this district are eligible to go and get food from a food bank. … That means that people are in survival mode. They’re not thriving… and COVID has certainly exacerbated their suffering.”

According to Turner, her platform “centers the poor, the working poor, and the fairly middle class,” pointing to three policies in particular: a $15 an hour minimum wage, the PRO Act, which would make it easier to form unions, and $2,000 a month in pandemic relief aid.

The Cleveland native, who went to Cuyahoga Community College, also asserted that she wants to “build a relationship” with voters by explaining the benefits of progressive policies like Medicare-for-all in a simple, concrete way.

“It's just really truly seeking to change people's material conditions,” Turner explained. “It's not having healthcare that’s commodified, to be able to take away copays, deductibles, and premiums. This is what this means to you in real life, real terms and real-time savings for you.”

‘We need to have what I call a wholesale coming-to-Jesus meeting’

Just over half the population in the district is Black, and Turner believes these economic policies are also relevant to the conversation around what she described as “numbing” and “nauseating” police killings of Black people.

“Policing for Black America has always been to surveil and to keep tabs,” said Turner, who wants to see criminal justice reforms that include an end to qualified immunity, demilitarization of police forces, and recruiting “women and other people of color with consciousness into the ranks of law enforcement.” 

Turner views policing as “a reflection of the larger society” and said these criminal justice reform measures need to be enacted alongside measures to deal with other “systemic problems in America” that continue to pervade society.

“We need to have what I call a wholesale coming-to-Jesus meeting in the United States of America about white supremacy and anti-Blackness,” Turner said, later adding: “We’re going to keep revisiting these things because we have unfinished business that we have not resolved in the United States of America.” 

Turner, who is a member of the DNC, says the national party is not getting involved in her race so far. Brown, Turner’s top opponent, is facing calls to step down from her position as Cuyahoga County party chair due to the local organization’s ability to influence the primary. Brown, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, did not relinquish her position. And Turner said that the county party is not making an endorsement in the primary.  

“I don’t think the DNC is going to get into this race, which is wise on their part,” Turner said. “That’s the better thing. Even Cuyahoga County — because of some push from some activist types — is not … going to endorse in this race. I think that’s wise of them to do that as well seeing as Ms. Brown is chair of the party. That would not look fair.”

‘They didn’t happen by accident’

In 2020, Biden ran as a more moderate alternative to Sanders. 

Since taking office in January, Biden’s team has made overtures to the left and emphasized progressive elements of his agenda like his first COVID relief package, which White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called "the most progressive piece of legislation in history." 

Turner doesn’t go that far. 

“All time ain’t here yet, but I will say that the COVID-19 relief package and the child tax credits and other things that were in there were very progressive,” Turner said.

Turner also noted that the left had a lot to do with those achievements. 

“The progressive movement can take a lot of credit,” said Turner. “Those things came because progressives were out there fighting and pushing. They didn’t happen by accident.”

Nina Turner attending a protest against the closure of the Center City facilities in Philadelphia, PA in 2019. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty)

Her platform also provides vivid examples of both the common ground between Biden and progressives and the points where they remain apart. 

Biden campaigned on raising the minimum wage to $15 — albeit gradually — but he has yet to include a wage hike in his legislative agenda. The president has expressed support for the PRO Act, which passed the House last month, but a handful of centrist Senate Democrats has not backed the legislation. Biden pushed to deliver $1,400 COVID stimulus checks to some Americans and his pandemic relief package included other financial aid, but he has, thus far, not responded to progressives’ calls for $2,000 monthly payments. 

“I see lots of progress ... on behalf of President Biden,” Turner said. “And what I’d like to say is... let’s keep on walking in that direction. Let’s keep going.”

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