CLEVELAND, Ohio — Before she joined Bernie Sanders’ revolution, Nina Turner wanted to lead her own in Ohio.
Once on a trajectory to be the next mayor of Cleveland, Turner instead challenged the status quo. She fought for local government reforms that ended an era of corruption but also enraged leaders in the local black political establishment. And then she threatened to primary Rep. Marcia Fudge, who owed her seat in Congress, at least in part, to those leaders.
This rivalry between Fudge and Turner, now going on a decade, is an insider vs. outsider story that helps explain Democratic campaigns in the most Democratic part of Ohio — and in the county that provides the largest share of the state’s black vote. It’s also instructive as the presidential race shifts here this week amid bleak prospects for Sanders. Fudge and most of the other insiders are backing former vice president Joe Biden. Turner, a Sanders campaign cochair and one of his most visible allies, is again pushing from the outside.
“I always find myself doing the hardest work, doing the most life-altering work, not going with the status quo,” Turner said in an interview last week, the morning after Biden beat Sanders soundly in several big primaries, including Michigan’s. “When you take on the hardest assignments, you know the difficulty is there. I don’t run from that. I have a history in this state of being an independent thinker and doing what I believe is right, even if the political headwinds are against me. And I’m going to continue to do that as long as I have the breath to do it.”
There’s been little reliable polling in Ohio since the field narrowed to Biden and Sanders. But the state’s demographics (a sizable black vote in the three largest cities, a big working-class population, and plenty of moderate suburbanites) reflect the type of voter coalition Biden has built elsewhere. Biden’s endorsement list in the state features some of the party’s most reputable organizers and vote-getters, including Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in the House — and a Sanders supporter in 2016.
Fudge, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, initially endorsed Kamala Harris, before she ended her presidential campaign in December. She came to Biden late, after his victory in the South Carolina primary revived his candidacy, and as other mainstream Democrats lined up behind him. In a statement the campaign circulated to announce her support, Fudge praised Biden’s commitment to civil and voting rights. “But above all,” she said, “I believe in winning — because that’s where all paths forward to every other big thing we want to do start.”
In an interview last week, Fudge said she’s known Biden for years, though they are not close. “I thought Joe Biden was the fit for the district,” Fudge explained, “and for me, personally.”
The district is the only one in Ohio where most of the constituents are black. The seat itself is the legacy of Louis Stokes, who became Ohio’s first black member of Congress after winning a racial gerrymandering case in the late 1960s. When he retired in 1993, the seat went to Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who like Stokes was one of the most influential Cleveland politicos of her generation. When Tubbs Jones died suddenly in 2008, party leaders helped elevate Fudge, who had been Tubbs Jones’ chief of staff, as her successor.
Fudge started off quiet and deferential to her elders — very much unlike the vivacious Tubbs Jones. Through attrition, she grew into at least some of the influence that comes with her job. Stokes and others who maintained a long-lasting grip in the black wards and precincts either died or backed away from public life in recent years. Frank Jackson, now in his fourth term as mayor of Cleveland, doesn’t much care for state or national politics.
Fudge’s loyalty sometimes costs her, as it did when she vouched for the character of former judge Lance Mason after he pleaded guilty to charges he assaulted his wife. (“Lance accepts full responsibility for his actions and has assured me that something like this will never happen again,” Fudge wrote in a supportive letter that became public in 2018, after Mason killed his then ex-wife, and just as Fudge was considering a run for speaker of the House.)
And Fudge’s candidates don’t always win. Her endorsement doesn’t carry the same weight as, say, Jim Clyburn’s did in South Carolina last month after he backed Biden, setting in motion Biden’s big victory there. She “seems popular with voters,” longtime Cleveland political writer Brent Larkin observed recently, “but has yet to demonstrate that unique ability to transfer that popularity.” Even so, Fudge’s hand is often felt in local politics, including at the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, chaired by a Fudge protégé.
“Marcia’s reach to elected leaders and political leaders is significant in Northeast Ohio,” Dean DePiero, a former mayor of the large Cleveland suburb of Parma and a well-wired Democrat in the state, said when asked about her Biden endorsement. After first endorsing Michael Bloomberg, DePiero now supports the former vice president.
“She understands Ohio well — that it’s maybe a center-right state,” DePiero added.
As Fudge settled into Congress in 2009, Turner, then a state senator, joined with a cast of predominantly white leaders in Cleveland’s progressive circles to overhaul the Cuyahoga County government. The party chair at the time, also a county commissioner, was at the center of a federal corruption investigation that resulted in dozens of convictions. Turner’s group favored replacing the three elected commissioners, and a row of other elected officeholders staffed by patronage hires, with an elected executive, an 11-member county council, and appointed administrators. Nearly every other black leader, including Fudge, opposed the ballot initiative, fearful it would rewind the progress black candidates had made winning countywide office.
Cleveland’s black newspaper, owned by boxing promoter Don King and at the time largely under the editorial control of a prominent powerbroker in the black community, depicted Turner in a front-page cartoon as Aunt Jemima — an image meant to brand her as subservient to white authority.
Still, Turner’s side won, and she subsequently was mentioned as a future mayor or a top prospect for the new county executive position. Instead, she began preparing to take on Fudge.
Turner pulled petitions for the primary and, sounding a lot like the presidential candidate she would eventually work for, said she saw an “opportunity to represent a constituency that feels they have been disillusioned.” But, much like how moderate and establishment Democrats rallied around Biden in recent weeks to keep the democratic socialist Sanders at bay, many of Greater Cleveland’s top black activists closed rank around Fudge, culminating with an endorsement event headlined by Stokes. Turner withdrew her candidacy a few weeks later.
She stayed active in progressive causes and became a minor MSNBC celebrity, back in the days of The Ed Show. She ran for Ohio secretary of state in 2014, losing badly in a year when a weak gubernatorial candidate dragged down the entire Democratic ticket. And then, after being an early booster for Hillary Clinton, Turner abruptly joined Sanders’ 2016 campaign. She quickly became one of the Vermont senator’s top surrogates.
Soon Fudge and Turner would collide again. After leaked emails showed Democratic National Committee officials mocking Sanders during the 2016 primaries, Fudge was pressed into a high-profile gig presiding over the convention that nominated Clinton. Turner joined with protesters sympathetic to Sanders, including actor Susan Sarandon, after plans for Turner to address the convention fell apart. A few days later, she openly considered an invitation to be the Green Party’s candidate for vice president.
Both women downplay their rivalry. “That was something the media wanted to drive,” said Fudge, who believes Turner “brings great value” to Sanders’ campaign. “We don't always have to agree,” a similarly diplomatic Turner offered. “I think we have a healthy respect for one another. Oftentimes we find ourselves in disagreements politically, and that’s OK.”
More recently they have been on opposite sides of other Ohio races. In 2018, Fudge endorsed Richard Cordray in the Democratic primary for governor. Our Revolution, the pro-Sanders political organization that Turner led at the time, backed Dennis Kucinich. Cordray won handily, with a big showing in Cuyahoga County. (Biden endorsed him after the primary.) But Fudge’s support was of little help in a state senate race, where the former Cleveland city council member she backed lost in a primary. And a Turner protégé — her handpicked successor on the city council — lost his reelection bid in 2017.
These mixed results show that neither has a local political network likely to sway Tuesday’s race to Biden or Sanders, though Fudge at least has an operation that’s been in recent use. She said she has loaned her political consultant, Kenn Dowell, to the Biden campaign and has signaled for other allies to help the effort however they can. Fudge also cut a minutelong radio spot for Biden’s Ohio campaign.
“We had a meeting yesterday, and within 24 hours of [Fudge’s] support, 50 elected officials and grassroots organizers came out to put the wheels in motion,” Blaine Griffin, a Cleveland city council member and pledged Biden delegate, told BuzzFeed News two days after Fudge endorsed Biden.
Griffin also admires Turner. “You won’t hear any of us say anything bad about Nina,” he said. “That’s our hometown lady. But I will tell you that Nina has not been on the ground the last few years, and the dynamics on the ground here have changed dramatically. She won’t bring the same kind of clout that Fudge does.”
Turner acknowledged as much.
“Well, that’s certainly my hope,” she replied when asked if her connection to Ohio would be an advantage to Sanders. “This is home, no doubt, but I’ve really been on the road a lot.”
Turner said Sanders’ Ohio team from 2016 — an operation she helped assemble — remains mostly intact, though she was reluctant to take credit for it. Tara Mosley-Samples, a Sanders ally and member of Akron’s city council, noted the more than 1 million votes Turner won in her secretary of state race six years ago.
“I think Nina brings a lot to the table for the state and especially for Cuyahoga County,” said Mosley-Samples, who was Kucinich’s running mate in 2018. “I think what she has been able to do, not only for the Sanders campaign but also for the city of Cleveland will show up in the numbers greatly.”
But Mosley-Samples also conceded Biden’s lead in big-name Ohio endorsements. “It seems like we’re bucking up against the machine.”
So Turner draws inspiration from her past fights in the state, especially the county government overhaul that passed in spite of its many powerful opponents.
“All of the forces were against us and certainly mounted against me,” Turner said. “But ultimately the people rejected that and had a different idea.”
“The headwinds are strong, no doubt about it,” she said of the Sanders campaign, before wryly reaching for a rallying cry for Elizabeth Warren, the former presidential candidate who competed for similarly progressive voters but has not thrown her support to Sanders.
“Nevertheless we persist.”