Before there was the Squad, or even the glimmer of a movement by insurgent progressives to challenge incumbent congressional Democrats, a progressive Black woman legislator in Cleveland contemplated what to many Democrats was unthinkable at the time: challenging a respected Black congresswoman from the left in a primary, in this case Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio, in 2012.
In the end, Nina Turner didn’t run against Fudge, but even announcing she was considering it made her an outsider to establishment Democratic Party politics. In a way, she’d always been one. She had come up as a college professor, city council member, and state senator, always a Democrat. But one of her earliest moves was backing a 2009 ballot initiative to reorganize the Cuyahoga County government that many local Democrats strenuously opposed. It passed overwhelmingly.
Turner again made establishment enemies when she went from publicly supporting the Ready for Hillary super PAC—the unofficial stalking horse for the presidential candidacy of the former senator and secretary of state—to becoming a top surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders in his 2016 primary campaign.
Now Nina Turner may be poised to actually join the Squad. In her run to fill the seat vacated when Fudge became the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the former Ohio legislator has the endorsement of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Cori Bush, four women of color who either defeated an incumbent or ascended after an incumbent stepped down. She’s also backed by Progressive Caucus chairs Pramila Jayapal and Katie Porter, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison—and, of course, Bernie Sanders.
One of 13 Democratic candidates in the race, Turner is leading in campaign funding—her campaign announced in mid-June that she had raised over $3 million—thanks largely to her ability to tap into Sanders’s movement. Her volunteer events often brim with die-hard supporters of the Vermont senator. At almost every gathering, Turner tells her audience that her focus is on “‘the least of these’—the poor, the working poor and barely middle class.” She’s running on Medicare for All, free college, a $15 minimum wage, criminal justice reform, and voting rights.
The key to this race, though, will be winning over her district’s many Biden supporters—the president won roughly 80 percent of the general-election vote here last year, as did Clinton four years earlier—without losing her admirers on the Sanders left. She’s already drawn fire from a leftist fringe for her perceived betrayals, most notably for defending members of the Squad who declined to “force the vote” on Medicare for All earlier this year. “For the love of God, do not throw away the Squad members!” she told a lefty podcaster. Meanwhile, her leading rival, Cuyahoga County councilwoman and Democratic Party chair Shontel Brown, is running on her ties to the president. A recent ad includes a photo of Brown with Biden and features a cable host telling Turner, “You’ve been highly critical of President-elect Joe Biden.” The ad closes with: “I’m Shontel Brown, and I’ll work with Joe Biden.” (By press time, Clinton had endorsed Brown.)
“Highly critical” of Biden might be an understatement. A July 2020 Atlantic feature on how Trump could win in November featured this colorful quote from Turner about how, despite Sanders’s endorsement, she still wasn’t keen on voting for Biden. “It’s like saying to somebody, ‘You have a bowl of shit in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing.’ It’s still shit.”
Turner has praised Biden as president, especially his Covid response. But will those earlier attacks hurt her? “I think it hurt her in the beginning, but I think people have gotten past that,” says Turner backer Samara Knight. “People are hungry for change. Nina brings hope.” Knight, an executive vice president of SEIU 1199, is a Biden supporter and also backed Clinton in 2016. Her union endorsed Turner after interviewing both her and Brown. “She’ll fight for us,” Knight says.
Brown has recently floated tributes to Israel at the top of her campaign website, as she’s welcomed support from the PAC Democratic Majority for Israel, which spent $1.4 million on ads attacking Sanders in 2020. The group is attacking Turner now for past statements conditioning US support for Israel on justice for the Palestinians.
“I’m a Democrat,” Turner tells me flatly. She runs through her party bona fides: as a city council member and state senator representing the city of Cleveland; as a Barack Obama delegate, twice, to the Democratic National Convention; as the Democratic nominee for Ohio secretary of state in 2014; as the engagement chair of the Ohio party. No one can take that away from her just because she supported Sanders, she says. “Sometimes, challenge isn’t pretty.”
Democratic voters will decide in an August 3 primary. An internal poll released on June 1 showed Turner at 50 percent and Brown at 15 percent, trailing “undecided.” But observers say the race could tighten, given Brown’s access to outside money.
Nina Hudson Turner was born in Cleveland to married teenage parents who separated after five years. Turner and her younger siblings then lived with their mother, who worked as a preacher and a nurse’s aide in a senior home while sometimes relying on welfare to keep the family afloat. “Nina’s mom was the love of my life,” her father, Taalib Hudson, told me, but the too-early marriage doomed their relationship. His strongest memory of his oldest daughter is at age 2: “She had, it seemed like, thousands of questions every day. And I answered every one of them, or I tried to.”
Father and daughter maintain a close bond to this day. Hudson remembers that at one point when the children were still young, he was having trouble with one of Nina’s sisters, and young Nina felt torn about taking a side. He told her she didn’t have to. “I said, ‘Get to know me for yourself, who I am.’ And she did. That’s what a leader does—they make up their own mind, they don’t take somebody’s word.”
Turner’s mother, Faye Hudson, died suddenly of an aneurysm at 42. She’d struggled with her health, particularly high blood pressure, for a long time and also faced mental health challenges. “There were times where my mother couldn’t take it,” Turner tells me. “My mother attempted suicide. She even talked about killing her kids. My siblings aren’t aware of that—they were too young. I bore a lot of those burdens growing up. She couldn’t pay rent one time, so instead of telling us that, she told us there were dead bodies under the porch.” Turner recalls being terrified. “So we had to move and leave behind all of our toys. We were very transient.”
She goes on: “The reason I have so much empathy and compassion and sometimes so much rage about what happens to people like my mother is because of my proximity to her pain. The pain is still very raw for me. So yeah, I might not be politically correct all the time.”
Turner was just 25 when her mother died, with a child of her own, and she suddenly was responsible for her youngest siblings. Still, she continued in school, as she’d promised her mother she would do, getting her associate’s degree at Cuyahoga Community College. That’s where she met the woman she calls “my mentor and surrogate mom”: Dorothy Salem, a now-retired professor of African American history.
“She’s a white lady with blond hair—and I was in my Black history class,” Turner recalls. “Of course, I was like, ‘White people can’t teach Black history!’ I’m looking at my schedule and saying, ‘I gotta be in the wrong class!’” Salem confirms the story: “Students would come to class the first day, look at me, and check their schedules. That was Nina. She came in and sat in the back of the class, and I could tell I had to prove who I was.”
When I tell Salem that Turner considers her a surrogate mom, she gets quiet. “When I found out her mom died… she didn’t come to me at that time, because we didn’t have that bond yet. But she told me about it later, and it bothered me, because everybody needs a mom.” Salem held Turner close, inspired her to continue her studies, to get a master’s degree at Cleveland State University, and to become a history professor herself.
Turner began teaching at Cuyahoga Community College in 1999, and she also worked in a variety of jobs as a political aide, from the state senate to the mayor’s office. She won a city council seat in 2005 and moved to the Ohio Senate in 2008. That’s when Issue 6, the reorganization of the Cuyahoga County government, came to define her early career. In that conflict, you can see traces of her later battles with the Democratic Party establishment.
The measure did away with the all-powerful three-person county board and created an elected county executive and an 11-member county council. Democrats were against it, because it meant some Republicans could win seats. “Old-time Democrats, old-time Black leaders, opposed it,” Turner recalls. “When it came to county corruption, in terms of Democrats, I stood up to say, ‘We have an opportunityto change the structure and let more people be in elected leadership.’ They threatened to ruin my career.” A local Black newspaper caricatured her on its front page as Aunt Jemima. But when the measure passed, the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted that Turner “has emerged as the region’s ’it’ politician of the moment.”
Soon came the issues that would cement her image as a progressive rabble-rouser: the 2010 GOP takeover of state legislatures across the country, as well as Congress, and the rise of anti-worker, anti-women, and anti-voter legislation nationwide. In Ohio, SB 5 stripped public workers of their collective bargaining rights, and Turner became an MSNBC regular railing against it, predicting the law would not stand; in November 2011, Ohio’s voters overturned it. She won more attention for the scene-stealing legislation she sponsored: a bill to mandate counseling for men who sought erectile dysfunction drugs, modeled on anti-abortion legislation, and one to drug-test legislators after a GOP lawmaker proposed a bill mandating drug tests for some welfare recipients.
In 2014, Turner won the primary to become the Democratic nominee for Ohio secretary of state. She lost the election by an almost two-to-one margin, in what was a shellacking for Democrats across the nation. But Turner wasn’t finished in Ohio yet. After the police shootings of John Crawford, who was examining a gun being sold in a Walmart, and Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old killed for playing with a pop gun in a park, she approached Republican Governor John Kasich about the need for serious police reform. Today she campaigns on her work with Kasich as chair of a bipartisan commission on community-police relations, which established standards for officer accountability, hiring, and use of force. (As the wife and mother of law enforcement officers, Turner is hard to peg as anti-police.)
But that work is not well known outside of Ohio. Turner is most famous for being Bernie Sanders’s best surrogate. It is her crowning glory, and perhaps her biggest liability, in this congressional race.
Turner contests the narrative that she “switched” from Clinton to Sanders in 2015. It’s… complicated.
“We’d just come off a hard race in 2014 in Ohio, and a young activist reached out to me and said, ‘Senator Turner, people are feeling really heavy. I’m heading up Ohio Ready for Hillary—would you come headline an event for us?’ For me, it wasn’t as much about Clinton as that Democrats were in pain. I wanted to lift spirits.” Turner went on to do fundraisers for the pro-Hillary group across the country and was covered in the media as a supporter. She insists she never “endorsed” Clinton, but given her high profile with Ready for Hillary, “I can understand how some people thought I did,” she admits. In the end, Turner says, she probably would have—“and then Senator Sanders hit the scene.”
Turner thrilled to his calls for Medicare for All and free college and to his campaign’s defiance of centrist incrementalism. Sanders also asked Turner directly for her support; his team courted her ardently, something Clinton never did. In fact, at a women’s conference in 2015, Clinton failed to recognize her. The memory still causes pain.
Former aides with Clinton’s 2016 campaign recall an event where the candidate failed to acknowledge Turner but insist she tried to make amends. As for the charge that Clinton never asked her directly for her support, several note that given Turner’s high-profile appearances on behalf of Ready for Hillary, the campaign thought it already had it. When the news broke that Turner had endorsed Sanders, with the emphasis on her “switching” from Clinton, she came in for heat from old friends and allies. “After all we’ve done for you,” a white supporter in the reproductive health community said to her at a local event. Run-ins like that continued throughout 2016, but the ultimate insult, for Turner, was when the Clinton campaign opposed letting her put Sanders’s name in nomination at the Philadelphia convention. That honor went to then–Representative Tulsi Gabbard.
Turner and I were on opposite sides of the Clinton-Sanders battle in 2016. I still regret one move: When Green Party candidate Jill Stein asked Turner to be her running mate that summer, I tweeted that Turner wouldn’t do it, because she wouldn’t risk “throwing away her career.”
I was factually correct—she turned down the offer—but morally wrong. Who was I to tell Turner what she should do with her political career? When we met at an event for Stacey Abrams’s gubernatorial campaign in June of 2017, I apologized to Turner. She forgave me. But during the weekend I spent interviewing her for this article, we were still wary at times. She refused to say whether she’d voted for Clinton, on the grounds that it’s a “secret ballot,” and our tensest moment came when I pressed her on it. “Oh my God,” she said, “you know who I wanted to win in the primary. People can draw their own conclusion. I voted against Donald Trump both times, and I voted for democracy.”
Yet in the end, we maintained our truce. She wanted me to understand why she’s still angry.
“I’m saying all of this, Joan, because people—her supporters—instead of trying to vilify me, should have said, ‘I wish she had stayed with us, but it’s OK.’ I really feel like some people on that side—and this is my Black girl resentment talking—felt as though, ‘OK, we elected the first Black president, y’all can’t help us elect the first woman? First white woman?’ These are things that are not said.”
“Actually, I might have had that feeling,” I confessed.
“OK? Why can’t we be honest? Hello, somebody!”
“Hello, somebody!” is Turner’s quirky campaign slogan, born of a very rough time, the period after Sanders suffered a heart attack in 2019. Speaking at his first campaign rally after his recovery, to a crowd of at least 25,000 people in Queens, Turner found herself overwhelmed by the audience’s emotion. “I was feeling the vibe from this crowd, and I’m looking out into all these faces and saying, ‘These are a lot of somebodies.’” She shouted, “Hello, somebody!” And the somebodies roared back.
As I trailed Turner around Cleveland and Akron the second weekend in May, I heard her say it to all kinds of crowds. Our first stop was at a roundtable for Black women union leaders organized by SEIU’s Samara Knight. It was a small circle, no more than 10 women, but each was an organizing powerhouse in her own right. Lynn Radcliffe, retired after 35 years as a secretary with Cleveland Metropolitan Schools, declared she’d been behind Turner “forever.” Her top issue is “criminal justice correction,” she says. “I have two Black sons, and I’m the great-grandmother of Black males. For us, the crying never stops.”
Turner talks about Radcliffe the next morning as she kicks off a canvassing operation at her Akron headquarters, lamenting the pain of “Black women who know fear when their sons walk out the door. It’s one thing for progressives to run in New York and win, or in California,” she tells the crowd. “The type of history we are about to make will show that a progressive can win in Cleveland and Akron, and in suburban and exurban counties.”
She and Akron City Councilmember Tara Samples go out to canvass, and after a quick lunch we head back to the campaign office, where about 50 women, almost all of them Black, gather for another conversation—“a sister conversation,” as Turner puts it. An Akron city councilwoman who hasn’t endorsed anyone yet asks Turner why she wants to join a Congress that’s “so divisive and dysfunctional.” Turner pauses, then tells the story of an Amazon worker named Jessica she met in Bessemer, Ala., during the unsuccessful union drive. Jessica told her that she wasn’t going to leave the company even if the organizing drive failed. “She said, ‘This is a snake pit, but I don’t wanna leave any of my coworkers alone in the snake pit.’”
A woman, clearly a supporter, raises her hand and says, “If I talked like you, I’d get fired.”
“I have been punished many times for being who I am,” Turner tells her. “But I am a grown-A woman. Things are getting better! You do you!”
That experience—being “punished many times for being who I am”—explains Turner’s indefatigable drive, and also the tinges of, as she terms it, “pain” or even “rage” that sometimes surface as she talks about her political life. A streak of well-earned pride, born out of hard work, personal struggle, and early losses, can make her bristle at suggestions that she should think or talk or act a certain way as she pursues her next goal. I see it more than once, including when I ask: Does she ever wish she could take back comparing Biden to a half-bowl of shit?
“I wish people would be more concerned about the suffering in the country than about the colorful words,” she says. “I was a passionate supporter of Senator Sanders—anybody who’s worked on a campaign knows emotion can run high. One other point, Joan, I wanna make: As a Black woman I kinda resent it, because people want to take away my agency. Why is Joe Biden being centered here?”
One ally, state Representative Juanita Brent, doesn’t hold Turner’s outspokenness against her, though Brent supported not only Biden in 2020 but Clinton in 2016. “I was never with Bernie,” she says with a chuckle. “But we have a vice president, who I love, who practically called Biden a racist”—referring to the July 2019 debate when Kamala Harris chided him for his opposition to busing. “People were fighting for their candidate.”
Turner is walking a careful line in this race. She never hides her commitment to Sanders, but in certain settings she puts more emphasis on her strong Democratic Party ties. She has come in for criticism from the left: After the podcaster Jimmy Dore trashed Ocasio-Cortez for opposing a doomed attempt to force a vote on Medicare for All at the start of this congressional session—addressing her viciously as “You liar. You coward. You gaslighter”—Turner defended her and the rest of the Squad on the lefty Humanist Report podcast.
“The Squad is ultimately the best that we have in terms of being able to push an agenda,” she said passionately. “Just because they’re not using the exact tactics some in the activist community want them to… Guess what: If you’re throwing away members of the Squad, then you’re not going to have anybody there.”
In April, when Turner welcomed her friend Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative who vocally supported Clinton in 2016 and Harris in 2020, to an Instagram Live session, the Twitter backlash was immediate. “Elections aren’t won and lost on Twitter,” counters Sellers, who has endorsed Turner despite having jousted with her in two presidential primaries. And in May, after Turner tweeted that “Republicans are the party of the big lie” as congressional Republican leaders lined up against the creation of a January 6 commission, the backlash from the far left was swift, asking why she’d singled out the GOP, not the Democrats she has also railed against. “I know sometimes the ultra-progressive left will be in love with me, sometimes they won’t,” Turner says. “It causes me pause, but I don’t lose sleep on it. I have and will continue to criticize the Democratic Party when they’re wrong.”
Indeed. Turner was the keynote speaker at an August 2020 event trying to establish a left-wing People’s Party, alongside Dore and Sanders ally Cornel West. Although she made it clear that she was staying in the Democratic Party, she defends reaching out to the “DemExit” folks, who believe the party rigged the 2016 primary against Sanders and object to its corporate ties. “You’re doggone right I did participate, proudly, and agreed with much of what they had to say. Somebody’s gotta speak their language, and I speak it very well. What I would like is for my party to show by its words and its deeds that there might not need to be another party.”
Can Turner maintain this balancing act? She speaks warmly of bringing together the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but so far, outside of CPC members like Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and Mondaire Jones, she’s gotten no support from the CBC; Ohio’s Joyce Beatty supports her opponent Shontel Brown. And if Turner is elected, how will the ideologically diverse Democratic caucus incorporate this strong, independent, radical, indisputably working-class Black woman—and how will she work with it? Turner and her allies hope we’ll find out next year.