EDITOR’S NOTE: Originally published in The Washington Post. You can read the rest of Katrina’s weekly Post columns here.
The Democratic primary in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District is more than a race for a congressional seat. With progressive leader Nina Turner challenging establishment incumbent Shontel Brown, the contest has come to represent a battle for the soul of the party.
Turner’s election to Congress would provide progressives with a skilled, dedicated, and powerful reformer, an inside ally for the progressive movements that are driving the change vital to this nation’s democracy and security. Endorsing her for the seat, the Cleveland Plain Dealer described her as having “the passion, experience, toughness and out-of-the-box thinking to give Cleveland a powerful, socially committed and independent congressional voice.” The paper praised her leadership at the local level—standing up to the Democratic Party to back Cuyahoga County corruption reforms in 2009 and fighting for downstate GOP votes that Cleveland’s mayor needed to make his school reform plan a reality in 2012.
Nationally, Turner burst on the scene as a passionate advocate for independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, and then as president of Our Revolution, the progressive grassroots organization launched following that bid.
Not surprisingly, Turner has been endorsed by the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus and the local chapters of Democracy for America, Black Lives Matter, Our Revolution, the Sunrise Movement, and other key progressive organizations active in electoral politics.
Brown, the chairwoman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, edged out Turner for the congressional seat in a special election in 2021. After interviewing the candidates, The Plain Dealer noted that Brown is “congenial and pleasant, but often leaves the impression she’s speaking talking points, not convictions.” She is a standard-issue establishment Democrat, backed by the corporate-money wing of the Democratic Party that operates through outfits such as the D.C.-based think tank Third Way and various dark-money PACs.
The race epitomizes the intraparty battles that must be fought and won if the Democratic Party is to become the vehicle for progressive reform. The old consensus—the neoliberal, free-market globalist, interventionist project of both parties’ establishments—has failed, its foreign policy a series of debacles, its economics generating staggering inequality while leaving working people in the lurch.
In the wake of that failure, progressive movements, media, and scholars have begun to drive a multiracial populist alternative on the left, expressed politically by the presidential campaigns of Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)—even as Donald Trump and his MAGA followers have shattered the Republican establishment on the right. Democrats are generally liberal on social issues. The big divides come over economics and foreign policy—and over the politicians compromised by big money and entrenched interests.
Sadly, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which generally stays out of intraparty primary battles, has chosen to intervene here, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who generally seeks to protect incumbent Democrats, openly endorsing Brown.
More bizarrely, Brown received the endorsement of the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC. The CPC is the internal expression of the external progressive movements seeking to transform the party’s direction. It is truly unfortunate that the PAC would end up on the other side of the movement candidate.
The PAC officers explain this as a function of their internal rules. The PAC routinely votes to endorse those of its members who make the request. When she entered Congress, Brown chose to join both the CPC and the New Democrats, the remnants of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, indelibly identified by the Rev. Jesse Jackson as “Democrats for the leisure class.”
Under the leadership of Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the CPC now numbers almost 100 members, making it one of the largest caucuses in the House. About 40 to 50 members are truly committed to promoting progressive policies and legislation, increasingly joining as a bloc to wield real power in the divided House. The remainder seek the association and pay their dues but are less committed to building progressive power. It is a sign of progressives’ increasing influence that moderate members who might once have shied away from the progressive label now embrace it. Brown is a good example.
What’s clear, however, is that business as usual won’t cut it in key races like the 11th Congressional District primary. It is simply off-kilter that the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC should endorse an incumbent against a true progressive champion such as Turner. And it’s bizarre that Turner would enjoy the endorsement of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and not that of the CPC PAC. Clearly, the PAC will have to rethink its internal operating procedures. At the very least, it could simply stay out of a primary fight rather than line up against a true ally.
As President Biden’s first year has made clear, real reforms face great obstacles, including big money, entrenched interests, obscene Republican obstruction, and, too often, cautious or compromised Democrats. Change will take place only if citizens organize to force it—both with movements that drive the debate and with leaders such as Nina Turner who frame the issues and help lead the fight.