One thing became abundantly clear in my one-hour conversation with former Ohio state Senator and Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign co-chair Nina Turner. From her decision to run (again) for Congress in Ohio’s 11th District, to the inflation and price gouging that squeezes working people, Turner comports herself with a sense of urgency that is maddeningly absent from the average Beltway barnacle.
“If your hair is on fire,” Turner says, recalling the words of former Cleveland Mayor Michael. R. White, “you ought to act like your hair is on fire.”
I spoke with Turner on March 15 about her congressional campaign, about centering ourselves in the now while looking critically at the past — and about staring soberly at what’s coming.
NINA TURNER: All over the world, we find oppressed people suffering — and they continue to suffer. Whether we’re talking about the war in Ukraine or the pandemic, the level of pain that everyday people are feeling in this country, and in this world, is suffocating. It is hard to keep faith; it is hard to believe that a better day can come. But we must.
I come from a Black liberation theology household, similar to Dr. Cornel West. My mother was steeped in that part of Christianity. We are in a horrible moment, but there is hope. And that hope has to do with each and every one of us, whether we have a fancy title or not, doing what we can, where we are, to be that change we want to see in the world. If we can hold onto hope, we will continue to make the impossible possible. As Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
We have to deal with these GOP states that say they believe in small government even though, this very moment, they are all up in everyone else’s business, whether we’re talking about voting rights, what they’re doing to the LGBTQ+ community in states like Florida and Texas, or the push to strip away a woman’s right to be able to control her own body. Democrats are going to have to stand up and not only call out these predatory policies, but do something about them.
One way to do something is to invest more money in state legislatures. I served as a state senator in the great state of Ohio at a time when Republicans had supermajorities (and they still have supermajorities in states like mine), and the Democrats fell down. They ignored state legislatures for the shiny objects of Congress and the presidency. Why can’t we do both? This is why we’re going through the gerrymandering hell we’re going through right now.
To understand the moment we’re in, we need to recognize that the attacks we’re facing have been years in the making. The judiciary didn’t get stocked with Republican appointees overnight. Every day a new state is coming out with a different version of anti-abortion or anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. It’s hard to wrap your head around where it’s all coming from unless you take a long view of how the Right — and the financial forces backing the conservative agenda — have strategized and manifested this assault over decades. Democrats, like you said, have not taken that threat seriously. Now it feels like we’re all scrambling for cover from a reactionary legal and legislative carpet bombing…
NT: So the question is: What will the collective do about it? Because we cannot keep going down this track and think that everything is going to be okay.
One way to deal with this malaise, this corrupting force, is to have good forces pushing back. And the fastest, most direct way to do that is through government. By their own actions, the Republicans are showing they are on nobody’s side, not even their own voters. So we got one party that has lost its ever-loving mind, and then we got another party that does not understand how to leverage the power of government on behalf of the very people who put them in office.
We need conscious-minded Republicans to stand up and resist this Trumpism that has taken hold in that party. And we need Democrats of good conscience to stand up and not accept things as they are, to use the power the people gave them in 2020 to do something to improve people’s material conditions.
Then we need faith-based communities to rise up and say what some of these Evangelicals are doing is wrong. “What would Jesus do?” None of that foolishness they doing! None of it.
And these corporations! Look at gas prices right now. The federal government needs to step up and regulate their behinds, because they’re taking this Ukraine crisis and raining down pain and misery on people while making record profits. People are suffering, and they’re just walking over people’s bodies to make another dollar. Where are the elected officials calling these fools out and hauling them into Congress to answer for what they’re doing? It’s untenable and it’s immoral.
You served on Cleveland City Council from 2006 to 2008 and as an Ohio state senator from 2008 to 2014. You were the Democratic nominee for Ohio secretary of state in 2014 and a key surrogate for Bernie Sanders’ presidential run in 2016 — and the 2020 campaign’s national co-chair.
And then you ran in a special Democratic congressional primary in 2021 — the same seat you’re running for again now — after Rep. Marcia Fudge resigned to serve as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Biden administration.
You began that 2021 race as the clear front-runner but lost to Rep. Shontel Brown with voter turnout about 17 percent. What will be different this time around, both in terms of the circumstances surrounding the primary and your campaign strategy?
NT: The opportunity that this regular election cycle presents is — new people, new district, new time. With redistricting, a great deal of this district is new, which means a lot of different people who didn’t get a chance to weigh in on the special election are going to be able to do so May 3.
Cleveland is the poorest large city in America. I am running because this community needs someone who’s going to fight for and beside them, and that is what I do.
Not much has changed in terms of the issue points. Medicare for All, of course. Raising the minimum wage. Workers need to be able to unionize without fear of losing their jobs— and if they are in a union, to fight for better wages, better benefits and better working conditions.
I was just with the Sherwin-Williams workers here in Cleveland who are on strike. I discovered from talking to them that they’re working with chemicals, and they don’t even get paid sick leave! It’s ridiculous.
We have a Starbucks here in Cleveland, the West Sixth Street store, where workers are trying to unionize, and I’ve been side by side with them. What these Starbucks workers are doing all over this country is beautiful. They are the next generation of unionists.
It takes courage to try to unionize. Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala., I see you.
In These Times readers know what happened in 2021: we saw John Deere workers, coal miners, nurses and people from just about every sector or profession you can think of, rising up all over this country, going on strike or fighting to create a union
And think about this, too: Within all these different facilities you’ve probably got some Trumpites working there, you’ve got Berniecrats, Clintonites, libertarians, people from across the political spectrum. They’re catching hell from the system but they put all of that political ideology nonsense to the side and they stood up together. But I want to remind people that when workers go on strike, they don’t get their paycheck — it takes an inordinate amount of courage to lose that money and still stand strong. Most people live one or two paychecks away — or one health crisis away — from total ruin. To stand up and say, “Send me, I’ll go. I’m about to go on strike and forgo the wages that I make for the greater good,” takes a lot.
Even with record numbers of people voluntarily quitting their jobs and demanding better pay and treatment, and public sentiment being overwhelmingly in support of unions and workers, we are a far cry from the number of strikes that used to take place in this country. Union density has fallen to historic lows. The majority of workers have been working harder and longer and producing more than ever, while their wages stagnate. The labor movement has been under constant attack, and we’ve got a long, long way to go to rebuild it — but doing so, I believe, is imperative for democracy.
You were deeply involved in the fight to defeat Senate Bill 5, Ohio’s version of Act 10 in Wisconsin, which has been devastating for workers and unions. You have also been a strong advocate for passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (or PRO) Act, which has been left on the chopping block in Congress. But you also found yourself sparring with the Cleveland Teachers Union a decade ago, which strongly opposed your position on charter schools and education reform. So, a lot has happened in the past 10 years.
How have you and the party evolved over the years on working with and tangibly supporting the labor movement? And how should the Democratic Party play a role in building the labor movement and empowering working people?
NT: Critics citing imperfections to try to impugn my overall commitment to public education, public school teachers and the labor movement are counting on a selective reading of history that discounts the political context in which we were operating. Seven years ago, in Cleveland, we were negotiating against a GOP-dominated legislature at a moment when the school privatization movement was dominating American politics. Despite facing these difficult odds, my fellow Democratic lawmakers and teachers union members nonetheless passed a compromise plan that both warded off the state takeover of our schools and increased our city’s public education budget. The initiative did allow the continued operation of charter schools in the district, but it imposed much stricter oversight standards on their operation and expansion. I have always supported rigorous standards and regulations for charter schools. We cannot allow charter schools to be operated by for-profit corporations or to cut no-bid sweetheart contracts with for-profit companies. As National Co-Chair for Senator Sanders’ 2020 Presidential campaign, I helped draft the Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education, which included setting a $60,000 minimum teacher salary and requiring charter employment practices to match those at neighboring traditional schools.
My support for the labor movement is deeply rooted in the belief that everyone deserves a life of dignity. I’ve been in the trenches with my labor brothers and sisters for decades, from the statehouse to the picket line.
Aside from a living wage, nothing will do more for the working women and men in this country than restoring real organizing rights through the PRO Act, so workers can join unions and negotiate with their employers free of interference or intimidation.
We need progressive candidates to embrace what Dr. Harvey J. Kaye, who’s an expert on the New Deal and FDR, and Alan Minsky, the executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, are calling a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights. That includes things like: the right to a useful job that pays a living wage, and to have a voice in the workplace through a union and collective bargaining; the right to comprehensive, quality healthcare; the right to a completely cost-free public education and access to broadband internet; the right to a meaningful endowment of resources at birth and a secure retirement, meaning that people should not die in poverty; and more.
Next, we need people in office who are willing to not just vote the right way, but fight the right way. One great example of that is Sister Congresswoman Cori Bush. We pat people on the back for voting the right way, but are you going to fight the right way? Are you willing to make a sacrifice and put something on the line for the very people you’re serving?
That is the difference between me and the other person in this race. That is the difference between true progressives — true freedom fighters — and other folks: We’re willing to put something on the line.
You speak from the heart, which is part of why so many people love you and why others, well, don’t. Your opponent and her supporters were quick to play carefully selected clips of your speeches in attack ads in 2021, including the one clip where you famously refer to the choice between Biden and Trump in 2020 as a choice between two half-bowls of shit. That sure as hell resonated with how I felt, and a lot of workers I talked to felt the same way, but a lot of other people did not — or, even if they did, I think the furious anxiety of the moment, from the botched Covid-19 response to the very real possibility of another Trump victory, led many people to demand Democratic loyalty and “unity” above everything else. Do you think that mood has changed over the past 2 years? And will that affect your strategy this time around?
NT: I was talking about two systems, neoliberalism and neo-fascism, and those systems were represented by people in public office or running for public office. That’s it, plain and simple.
It’s dangerous to demand blind loyalty. If we look throughout human history, we see what that kind of blind loyalty can get us. From my perspective as a free Black woman in America, thanks to the sacrifices of my ancestors, my agency is fully intact.
The attacks on me, because I was not “sufficiently loyal,” are the antithesis of what those very people say they stand for. You can’t say, on the one hand, that “People should have freedom in this country,” and then, on the other hand, that “You have freedom only when I say you can have freedom— freedom to present yourself only as I say you can present yourself.” That’s dangerous, no matter who’s doing it.
Some people got upset by my critique and, you know, God bless ’em; we don’t always have to agree. But what you need to do is respect my agency — in a nation that’s supposed to be free — to express myself in a way I deem fit, to articulate the pain of the people who are suffering the most. It’s Black women in particular whose agency is questioned over and over again. We are expected to be blindly loyal. But I don’t worship at the feet of any man or any woman; I worship God, and I serve the people.
So yes, Max, they used me against me. They used my natural inclination to tell the truth in a way that may not be acceptable to the pearl-clutchers and the tie-tighteners, because they have the ability to be prim and proper while somebody can’t eat. They got the ability to be prim and proper when somebody can’t afford their rent or mortgage. They got the ability to be prim and proper when somebody is on the picket line and doesn’t have a check coming in, when somebody’s going to be financially ruined because they’ve got a medical condition but don’t have healthcare or got out-of-pocket costs they cannot afford. People can be prim and proper when they can afford their prescription drugs, because they are not suffering to the same level as millions and millions of people in this country who cannot.
See, they want sheep. I’m not a sheep. I’m a panther, baby. I hail from the Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm school of thought, “unbought and unbossed.” I’m going to say to the Democratic Party, “You’ve got all the power up in the Congress and the presidency, and you’re still making excuses?”
If being willing to challenge my own party means I’m not the “right kind of Democrat,” then so be it. If loving the people so much that I’m going to push hard for these policies is wrong, I don’t want to be right. If fighting to change a legal system that sees Black people — especially Black men — and poor people and people of color as somehow more criminal is wrong, I don’t want to be right. If standing side by side with striking workers of all stripes — Black, white, Hispanic, gay, straight — is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
And you know what? I’m in good company. The freedom fighters of this moment, the freedom fighters of the past— they did not stand idly by. They cared enough about the people to raise hell, and so do I. I’m a hell-raising humanitarian.
I don’t know what’s so wrong with any of that, but, sure enough, an “Anybody but Nina Turner” campaign was waged in 2021. So instead of using that energy to protect Democrats in other races, they used all that venom to try to stop a progressive. I have emails from so-called Democrats encouraging Republicans to jump into the special election of 2021 (and about 5,000−8,000 Republicans actually voted in the Democratic primary — greater than the margin of victory). Prominent Republicans, including Robert Kraft, owner of the Patriots, donated to my main opponent. My opponent’s website had a “red box” telling dark money groups what to hit me with. This is why we need campaign finance reform. Big money has an outsized influence that overshadows the voices of people who actually work, live, and play in these districts. That’s dangerous to democracy.
Let’s talk about “The Establishment Strikes Back” problem. You’ve said that progressives should be prepared to “go there” when the machine kicks into gear and all the dark money, partisan PACs and media, and political opponents start throwing down. We saw it when Covid and an Obama phone call helped bring Bernie’s breakaway second presidential run to a grinding halt. We saw it when establishment Democrats flipped the chess board over to defeat India Walton after she won the Democratic mayoral primary in Buffalo, N.Y. We saw it with your campaign.
A lot of progressives naively believed the movement could withstand whatever the establishment threw at us through sheer, collective Care Bear will. But that was not the case. How can progressives be better prepared to counter these attacks in the future? And if candidates and supporters are going to “go there” and respond forcefully, what does “going there” mean for people who are still committed to upholding progressive principles?
NT: The 21st-century version of the progressive movement is still young. And the reason I say “the 21st-century version” is because there were versions of us in the 20th century, in the 19th century. In our infancy, we’ve still got a lot to learn. We have to learn to be more disciplined, more agile and not underestimate the other side. We got to know they are going to fight dirty. I believe that corporate interests would sell their mamas down the river to stop progressives and maintain the status quo. That’s what they do.
In the progressive movement, we need to bump back against those forces with similar force. We have to have coconspirators and allies in activist groups, not just in the realm of electoral politics. That’s what Our Revolution is doing right now, alongside groups like Democracy for America, Progressive Democrats of America, RootsAction, Black Men Build, Our Black Party and so many others. It’s all about figuring out how we get those groups to coalesce, finding those issues we have in common, finding those candidates who will fight for them, and then fighting like hell to get them elected.
We must use everything at this movement’s disposal to fight back against a force that will do everything necessary to stop the type of progress we are fighting for.
In the 20th century, do you think the status quo was jumping for joy, saying, “Oh, yes, civil rights movement! Let’s get them Black folks voting rights! Let’s help women!”? No! Pick any great movement in history that upset the way things were — there were always strong forces pushing against them.
The bottom line: The progressive movement once understood that we are in a fight, and fighting requires us to have resolve, resiliency, an understanding of what we are fighting against. We also need to understand what we are fighting for, and to ready ourselves for the mission. Because whoever represents the other side is not going to go quietly into the night.
The status quo ain’t playing with us, so we can’t play with them. We underestimated how far they would go. We can’t make that mistake again.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. As a 501©3 nonprofit, In These Times does not oppose or endorse candidates for political office.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InTheseTimes.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.