There will be a lot of loaded national “narratives” spun about the Ohio-11 special election Democratic primary. Mainly, we’ll hear that the race was the establishment vs. the Bernie Sanders insurgency and the establishment won, with Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chairwoman Shontel Brown besting progressive former state senator and Sanders campaign cochair Nina Turner.
But one undercovered story stands out to me from my first interview covering Turner’s campaign—and I cut it from a late draft of my June story about it. Staunch Turner supporter Samara Knight, executive vice president of the local SEIU 1199, told me one worry she had: “Nina hasn’t been here in this district for a while. Yes, she was a council member and our state senator, but mostly she’s been on the national scene.” Knight thought Turner, who was raised in Cleveland, worked there in politics or academia most of her adulthood, but had been in Washington, D.C., for several years, could and should overcome it. But she didn’t.
In this gerrymandered, high-poverty Cleveland-Akron district, with the Cleveland share of it still in thrall to its Black political trailblazers, the late Mayor Carl Stokes and US Representative Louis Stokes, that local story is bigger than I thought, and bigger than you’ll hear as the national media crawl through the wreckage of an ugly race that could turn out to be the most expensive Democratic primary in history.
Turner conceded to Brown far earlier than anyone expected. “Tonight we have looked across to the promised land,” she said, “but for this campaign, on this night, we will not cross the river.” That left open a primary challenge to Brown when she stands for reelection next year. We’ll see.
Two contrasting Tuesday developments stood out to me as I waited for results. One: This very same day, President Joe Biden announced a partial eviction moratorium, after members of the “Squad” of progressives in Congress refused to let the issue die, even sleeping on the Capitol steps in protest. It occurred to me that Biden showed his respect for the progressive wing of his party better than much of the establishment, which threw almost $6 million behind Brown in her race to bring down the former front-runner, Turner, does. (Turner raised a bit more, but with outside spending included, they looked to be almost tied on election day.)
The Squad, of course, including Representative Cori Bush, leader on the fight to extend the moratorium, supported Turner.
The other harbinger on Tuesday: 2016 Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, a Donald Trump enabler, was trending on Twitter. And that didn’t bode as well for Turner. In a district that went 80 percent for both Biden and Hillary Clinton, Brown’s campaign successfully weaponized Turner’s long history of harshly criticizing establishment Democrats—not only joining the Sanders campaign after being publicly affiliated with “Ready for Hillary” but also then publicly entertaining a role as Stein’s vice presidential candidate, refusing to say whether she voted for Clinton, and just last year comparing voting for Biden to voting for “half ” a bowl of shit rather than “the whole thing.”
“Weaponizing” isn’t the same thing as “creating” political liabilities; Turner created those herself. I asked Turner if she regretted or would take back her Biden comments, back in May; she said no. I wrote in June that the race would come down to whether she could win over her district’s Biden supporters without alienating the Sanders left. From the results, it seems she kept the left but lost many Biden diehards, especially older Black voters.
In the end, Turner turned to Sanders and his supporters in the last weekend of her campaign, when she changed her pitch significantly from when we spoke in May. Back then, she went out of her way to praise Biden and even the woman who most recently held the seat she wanted—Shontel Brown’s mentor Marcia Fudge, whom Turner contemplated running against in 2012. After Fudge was nominated to be HUD secretary, she told me, “I called her to congratulate her. I am very proud that she’s the HUD secretary.”
But in the closing weekend, as Sanders and supporters like anti–Democratic Party activist and scholar Cornel West came to the district, while at least four Congressional Black Caucus leaders were there for Brown, Turner returned to an earlier script. “We got some folks rattled,” Turner said. “But I’m glad they’re rattled. I want them to be uncomfortable. Why is it that the poverty pimps get to be comfortable—and the poor people uncomfortable?” she added. She did not identify the “poverty pimps.” One of Turner’s last ads featured a jail cell door closing on Brown, who faces genuine ethics questions, but nothing that will land her in prison (as far as I can tell). In a district that saw a toxic sludge of negative advertising, much if not most of it from Brown, many said that ad backfired on Turner.
In her concession speech Tuesday night, Turner inveighed against the outside money she faced: “I am going to work hard to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen to another progressive candidate again. We didn’t lose this race; evil money manipulated and maligned this election.”
It was not hard to understand why Turner tacked left. Some of us will be mulling the hyper-involvement of the CBC, and its PAC, for a while. Not only Clyburn but Ohio Representative Joyce Beatty, Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, and New York’s Gregory Meeks hit the district for Brown last weekend. Beatty struck a patronizing tone on behalf of the woman she endorsed, in the name of her Ohio-11 predecessors Marcia Fudge, the late Stephanie Tubbs Jones, and Louis Stokes. Jones, she said, “took Marcia and I, because Lou Stokes mentored us. So you see it tells you to bring up the child. So I’m here today to bring up the child. I’m here today to bring up Shontel Brown.”
Beatty was speaking in the context of Bible verses, but it crystallized the CBC’s approach to Brown (who, it must be said, is only seven years younger than Turner). She would honor her elders, not criticize them—or nudge them to the left. “If you’re looking for someone who has been more focused on headway than headlines, then yes, I think those are the things that make me different from the other candidate,” she told NPR last month.
As someone who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, I found myself through the looking glass in this race. I didn’t support anyone, but I approached Turner—with whom I’d rumbled back then—with respect and fairness for my profile. The outside spending on Brown, especially almost $2 million by the Democratic Majority For Israel (DMFI), stunned me. The PAC is backed not just by supporters of Israel but also fossil fuel and other corporate magnates, and cut some of the ugliest ads in the primary. Its largest contributor over the last two years was Stacy Schusterman, chair of Samson Energy, according to The Intercept, and the group has also taken donations from other big corporate interests.
Back in 2016, I defended the CBC for its staunch defense of Clinton over Sanders, especially as Sanders supporters trashed CBC members in racially ignorant, patronizing, and insulting terms. (I still remember vicious Twitter attacks on the late Representative John Lewis, who supported Clinton.) In this race, it’s hard not to wonder why so much effort was put behind Brown to challenge Turner, who seemed to have the race wrapped up this spring, in a safe Democratic district that she would have easily won.
It’s their prerogative, of course. But next year, when Democrats are in grave danger of losing the majority, I hope they don’t forget about the millions invested in defeating Turner, who would likely side with Biden, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, almost all of the time. I should also note that Turner had some serious CBC support—from the caucus’s left. Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Jamaal Bowman, Mondaire Jones, Ilhan Omar, and Bush all backed Turner, along with progressive stalwarts Pramila Jayapal, Jamie Raskin, Katie Porter, Ted Lieu, Ro Khanna, and many others. The CBC establishment bet against them. How will that work out?
In the end, 1199’s Samara Wright—who supported both Clinton and Biden, for the record—didn’t blame Turner for turning left in the waning days of the campaign. “I didn’t agree with some things she’s said and done, but Nina’s done the best she could.” Talking about the establishment onslaught, Wright asked, “What are they getting out of it? It really worries me. It’s shameful what they did to Nina.”