Nina Turner Doesn’t Need the Establishment

The progressive House candidate faces a tough battle in Ohio. But she's got fervent grassroots support on her side...and, of course, Marianne Williamson.

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Nina Turner Doesn’t Need the Establishment

On an unseasonably balmy April afternoon in Cleveland, a near-biblical scene is playing out before the pulpit inside of the Holy Trinity Cultural Arts Center. Brazen progressive House candidate Nina Turner, who once likened then-presidential candidate Joe Biden to a “bowl of shit,” stands at the center of a congregation of her supporters, their arms stretched skyward, eyes closed in prayer. The assemblage looks like a human shield—the impenetrable membrane to Turner’s nucleus.

“God, we pray for her strength,” Pastor Dr. Andrew Clark Jr. offers over a symphony of spontaneous shouts of affirmation and impassioned piano-playing. Turner, illuminated by iridescent rays of midday sun streaming though the stained glass, removes her glasses and holds a singular clenched fist just above her head. Moving closer and closer to Turner—eyes closed and arms raised with the rest, as if compelled by the Holy Spirit itself—is none other than former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson.

Williamson has flown to Ohio from Washington, D.C., to lend her support to Turner in the grueling Democratic primary race for Ohio’s 11th district, where the famous firebrand is trying to to unseat moderate incumbent Rep. Shontel Brown (D). And frankly, the former state senator and co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign needs friends right now; the gathering in the church falls smack dab in the middle of a very arduous moment for Turner. Just weeks earlier, The Intercept reported that crypto tycoon Sam Bankman-Fried has spent over a million dollars to back Brown via super PAC, Protect Our Future, and billionaire oil heiress Stacy Schusterman gave $2 million to Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) PAC, which went directly to television ads for Brown. Then, in a move that felt personally upsetting for Turner, the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)—whom were expected to endorse her—backed Brown instead. While these moments have hardly sealed Turner’s fate, they’ve undoubtedly made what was already an uphill battle a much steeper climb.

“It was disappointing and surprising,” Turner told me of the caucus’s decision, as she snuck in a hurried meal before driving herself to the church. As of late, driving herself to her own events has become a habit for Turner, much to the chagrin of her team. “I’m not just some typical politician or former elected running for office,” she said. “I’m an activist leader in this movement, and I’ve been on the battlefield for Medicare for All, for example, with many of those members that are in the caucus. I’m their colleague, even if I’m not serving in elected office.”

Turner isn’t exactly popular in the Democratic Establishment lately. And Williamson, at least, is still standing by her amid the betrayal, having found herself “mesmerized” by the former state senator when they first met at a 2014 fundraiser at the home of Los Angeles attorney Lisa Bloom—otherwise known as Gloria Allred’s daughter and former attorney for Hollywood’s most notorious sexual predator, Harvey Weinstein, though none of that news had surfaced yet. “It’s kind of like when, it sounds silly, but there are those moments in culture, like when Madonna first came out with the ‘Borderline’ video, and you just look at that and go, ‘That’s a star,’” Williamson told me on the rooftop of a cocktail bar in Shaker Heights, lush with hunter green velvet couches and veiny plants. “There are moments like that in culture, and there are moments like that in politics.”

Photo:Nina Turner for Congress

“As she has become more and more of a significant figure on the political landscape, I haven’t failed to notice that she hasn’t changed her principles,” Williamson continued. “And I’m sure she’s had enough opportunity to do just that, so I have tremendous respect and personal affection for her the more I get to know her.”

It’s an unexpected allyship, perhaps, but one that could actually help keep Turner in the running against a well-funded incumbent who won’t be easy to oust.

True progressives—or “freedom fighting progressives,” as Turner coins them—are often dismissed by the mainstream Democrats as prophet-on-the-hill types, teeming with lofty (read: unrealistic) ideas and flocks of disciples who hope against hope that they’ll be brought to fruition. Turner’s speeches have been routinely deemed “sermonlike;” similarly, as former Sanders aide Ari-Rabin-Havt just detailed in his new book, The Fighting Soul: On The Road With Bernie Sanders, former President Barack Obama once likened Sanders to an Old Testament prophet in a closed-door meeting.

These might be veiled insults—even cafeteria Catholics know that in most cases, no one listened to prophets—and yet, it’s clear that many right here in what was once considered a bellwether state believe that despite the odds, Turner is more than just another prophet fated to forever be an ideological outsider and, rather, a charismatic preacher capable of collective conversion.

“Hang on a minute, I gotta get down here where the people are,” Turner decides moments before her blessing in the church. “I like to be real close,” she says, climbing down from the podium to deliver her remarks. Most things Turner says here—like, “We bailed out Wall Street, but I want to see a down payment on the hood,” and “Unless you got a sugar mama, sugar daddy or sugar-somebody, you’re in the working class!”—are met with the rattle of a tambourine and raucous applause.

After her speech, when she eventually steals away for a quick word, we slide into a pew, and I ask if it’s possible—in a state that’s fallen prey to gerrymandering, voter apathy, corporate interests and, frankly, Trumpism—that someone like her can truly run and win on a progressive platform. She responds by telling me a story about speaking with a recent donor in the district whose brother and sister-in-law have been forced to sell their home, because his diabetes is so complicated they can no longer afford both their mortgage and the price of his prescription drugs.

“There are the issues I’m fighting for,” she said. “I’m not saying that the progressive agenda is perfect. But the progressive agenda is humanity.”

If you’ve never been to Cleveland’s 11th district, it would be easy to write Turner off as another radical progressive running in a state that hasn’t quite caught up with her, and maybe doesn’t want to. The local showing this weekend, however, tells a different story: Though Turner is now a national political presence—swiftly cementing herself as the surrogate with the most quotable catchphrases (“Hello Somebody!”) on Sanders’ campaigns in 2016 and 2020—she has been a local celebrity for nearly two decades.

Selected for Cleveland city council in 2006, Turner was the the first Black woman to represent Ward One, a mostly suburban area in the southeastern side of the city. By 2008, she was elected to state senate and spent six years championing policy to benefit working-class families, mothers suffering from the state’s current rape custody law and making some notable symbolic political statements, like introducing legislation to regulate men’s reproductive health as a response to draconian abortion bills. “We should show the same attention and love to men’s reproductive health as we do to women’s,” Turner told Jezebel editor Laura Bassett, who worked at HuffPost at the time, in 2012.

Since 1998, Turner has also served as a tenured professor of African American history and women’s studies at Cuyahoga Community College, her alma mater.

That she would make a play for public office after stumping for Sanders—in the throes of global pandemic, no less—arrived as no surprise to anyone that’s followed her career. In December of 2020, when President-elect Joe Biden was considering Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) as his nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Turner filed paperwork to register a committee by the name of “Nina for Us” with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Mere days after Fudge’s nomination was made official, Turner announced her candidacy in the special election to fill her seat. By January, Turner’s campaign said it raised more than $1 million with “tens of thousands of small dollar donations from across the country,” including nearly 2,000 donors from her home state. She was quickly endorsed by formidable national figures—namely, Sanders, members of The Squad, and progressive PACs like Justice Democrats and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has now notably abandoned her.

Brown, then chair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, ran against Turner for Fudge’s open seat. Turner appeared every bit the frontrunner, and yet, much like the current race, Brown began pulling ahead in the final weeks of the primary, due in large part to vocal support from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Congressman James Clyburn, and a hefty $3 million donation from the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) — which included funds from corporate donors and even Trump supporters. Both would be enough to clinch the election. Exit polls indicated Brown outpaced Turner in areas with a higher proportion of Black and Jewish voters and in wealthier suburbs, while Turner found favor with white voters and the electorate in the city of Cleveland.

“We didn’t lose this race. Evil money manipulated and maligned this election,” Turner declared in her concession speech last August.

For pundits across the country, that special election served as a case study for whether or not progressivism was palatable in a state that’s clearly moved further right since Trump’s victory in 2016. Turner maintains that it still can be. “Ohioans are rugged. We are determined. And we feel deeply,” Turner told me in early 2021. “What greater testing ground could there be in this country than the great state of Ohio?”

“I am running for this office to save some lives.”

Despite one year and a devastating loss later, she still doesn’t seem discouraged and insists that this campaign is different from the last. A newly redrawn district—which now includes all of the city of Cleveland, many East Side suburbs and the West Side suburb of Lakewood, an area Sanders won in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries—and a strong endorsement from the Cleveland Plain Dealer certainly don’t hurt.

“Brown is congenial and pleasant, but often leaves the impression she’s speaking talking points, not convictions,” the editorial board of the Plain-Dealer wrote of Brown. On Turner, the esteemed paper wrote: “A fighter is what Greater Cleveland needs in Congress, especially with the strong possibility of a GOP takeover of the House. And a principled and focused fighter is what Greater Cleveland will get in Nina Turner.”

This time around, Turner tells me, “The energy is palpable. It wasn’t as palpable for our campaign last time. We’re running the field first, that is definitely different. And this is not a special primary in the middle of the summer.”

Before the event at Holy Trinity, Marianne Williamson and I are hanging out on the rooftop of a Cleveland cocktail bar which, on any other weekend afternoon, the suburb’s Gen Z and Millennial cohort would likely hold court, instructing one another how to capture a not-so-candid photograph of their polychromatic concoctions mid-cheers. On this particular Saturday, the venue is hosting a “Women for Nina” reception.

I press Williamson to speculate as to why—when Turner has established herself as both a national and local force to be reckoned with, and very clearly has substantial support from her district—she hasn’t been able to break through. Williamson didn’t mince words. “Our political system has become in many ways, a system of legalized bribery,” she says. “So, I think it’s an important distinction to make that people are not the problem. The problem is that our political system currently does not represent the voice of the people, so much as it represents corporate interests.”

Turner, very obviously, represents the people—particularly this city’s working-class population. Her younger sister opens the speaking program on the roof’s patio with an emotional anecdote of how, after their mother tragically died at just 42-years-old from an aneurysm, Turner—then 22—became a caretaker for her six younger siblings. Nearby, Turner wipes away tears as she listens.

Then comes Williamson’s turn on the mic, where she delivers a scorched-earth soliloquy. In her signature Texan drawl, she quips that Brown “knows her way around every fancy cocktail party in Washington,” but that “the feminism of the seventies was not about a woman’s ability to get ahead. It was an understanding that one woman doesn’t get ahead unless all women get ahead.”

By the time Turner takes over, the dozens of attendees are primed to hear her excoriate Brown, the media, and the Democratic Establishment directly. Instead, she does what she does best: earnestly speaks of her ministry. “I am running for this office to save some lives,” she says. “I understand that universal healthcare will save some lives. That driving down the cost of prescription drugs will save some lives. That legalizing cannabis will save some lives. That making sure women get their whole damn dollar will save some lives.” The volume and intensity ramp up with every repetition, her voice never wavering.

“That is what being in public service is about,” she says. “To save some lives.”

The moment she concludes her rousing speech, a “Nina! Nina! Nina!” chant breaks out amongst the crowd, which starts to close in on her again. Turner closes her eyes, as she did in the church, and stands very still at the center of it all.

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