CLEVELAND — The last time Nina Turner ran for office, she was a Ready for Hillary enthusiast who enjoyed the support of Bill Clinton in her unsuccessful bid for Ohio secretary of state.
Now she’s preparing to be a congressional candidate with the national cred she acquired through her years as one of Bernie Sanders' most prominent allies.
Turner this week filed paperwork that signals her intent to seek Ohio’s 11th District House seat, which will become vacant if Rep. Marcia Fudge is confirmed as President-elect Joe Biden’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Her campaign would set up 2021's first high-profile test of the progressive movement's strength. Turner, 53, is returning to the local scene as a bit of an outsider who likely will have to defeat the more moderate Black political establishment in Cleveland and its eastern suburbs.
Turner’s transformation in the six years since she was last on a ballot has been remarkably circular. She first made her mark as a state senator more than a decade ago as the only Black leader to split with Democrats and back a massive overhaul of the corrupt county government. She soon defied the status quo again, by briefly threatening to primary Fudge.
No one ever denied Turner’s potential, though. She thrived in the legislature, where her oratorical skills and laser focus on voting rights in an electorally important state often got her on MSNBC. Even her rivals believed she’d be the next mayor of Cleveland. After she lost the secretary of state race in 2014, the Ohio Democratic Party created a job for her, eager to keep her close and happy as she helped Clinton allies raise money for 2016 and pondered her next move. Then she stunned everyone by going to work for Sanders, ditching an establishment that had finally embraced her.
“I always find myself doing the hardest work, doing the most life-altering work, not going with the status quo,” Turner, who has not officially declared her candidacy, told BuzzFeed News in March, as Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was losing steam against Biden. “When you take on the hardest assignments, you know the difficulty is there. I don’t run from that.”
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine will set dates for the special elections when Fudge officially resigns. Cleveland-area Democrats expect a free-for-all in the primary, which, given the 11th District’s partisan makeup, will almost certainly determine the winner.
Party insiders are floating roughly a dozen names with varying levels of seriousness. After Turner filed federal paperwork to establish a campaign committee Wednesday, at least two others scrambled to launch their bids, including Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Chair Shontel Brown, 45, who is close with Fudge.
Turner, who previously led the Sanders-aligned political nonprofit Our Revolution and frequently opened for Sanders at campaign rallies, is expected to tap into the national grassroots organizing and fundraising energy that surrounded the Vermont senator’s White House campaigns. One veteran Ohio Democratic strategist predicted to BuzzFeed News that she could raise $1 million in her first 24 hours as an official candidate.
"Nina Turner would be an incredible congresswoman,” Rep. Ro Khanna of California — who, like Turner, served as a cochair of Sanders’ 2020 campaign — said in an emailed statement Wednesday before Tuner filed her paperwork. “I hope she runs, and she'd have my full support.”
A candidate like Turner, with built-in national infrastructure, might clear the field in other districts, but not in the Ohio 11th. Minority-majority seats like this one, created in the 1960s to better ensure Black representation, don’t open often. Fudge is only the third person to hold it. A bunch of Democrats who are preparing to run next year for mayor of Cleveland, the office a younger Turner once seemed destined for, are now weighing whether they can and should enter what could be a once-in-a-generation congressional primary. (One example of this: The always cagey Dennis Kucinich, who was mayor in the 1970s and later served in Congress, was already weighing a return as mayor before telling the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Wednesday that he’d also consider running for the 11th District seat.)
Brown’s candidacy could be particularly potent. Fudge, whom she considers a mentor, backed her campaign for Democratic chair three years ago. Her post leading the party in the district’s largest county affords Brown and her allies significant influence over endorsements that could bring access to a discounted direct mail program and other helpful resources.
“The positions that I currently hold — two very influential positions — do put me in a strong position,” Brown, who also serves as an elected representative on the Cuyahoga County Council, told BuzzFeed News in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Brown said she has no plans to step down as party chair. And though Fudge, as a Cabinet nominee or secretary, is unlikely to be explicit in her preference, Brown said she has had conversations with the lawmaker about succeeding her in the House. Both are from Warrensville Heights, a small Cleveland suburb where Fudge used to be mayor and Brown previously served on the city council.
“We talk often and she has been very supportive … throughout my political career,” Brown added.
A crowded field that includes one candidate with a national following and another with a strong base in Cuyahoga County could make the district’s tinier sliver of Summit County, which includes Akron, a tipping point. Emilia Sykes, the Democratic leader in the Ohio House, is among those from that area considering a run. Sykes, though, is seen as a candidate for statewide office in 2022 and also could wait to see if future redistricting yields a more Akron-centric seat.
Tara Mosley-Samples, an Akron City Council member who is close with Turner and the Sanders movement, believes Turner’s broader profile helps her in outlying parts of the district.
“The district comes through Summit County,” Mosley-Samples told BuzzFeed News. “We know Nina. She has come through Akron and Summit County for many, many years.”
Other hopefuls think they could sneak through the middle in any primary that plays out as a Turner versus Brown fight. Among the best-known contenders is Jeff Johnson, a former state senator and Cleveland City Council member who plans to seek the seat for a third time. His first run, in 1998, was derailed by a corruption case that sent him to prison for extortion. He tried again in 2008, after being granted an expungement, but finished a distant second to Fudge in a special primary to succeed the late Stephanie Tubbs Jones. The following year, Johnson won back his old council seat, which he held for two terms before losing a bid for mayor in 2017.
“This is the first time I’m running for this seat where there’s been enough time to reestablish myself, having been reelected twice and having come in third in the mayor’s race,” Johnson told BuzzFeed News in a telephone interview Thursday. “My record is clear, so it’s not like I’m hiding from anything. I am the most experienced candidate. I’ve been at this since 1984.”
Johnson, 62, plans to pitch himself as a bridge between the Biden and Sanders factions of the party. He noted his relationships with Sanders allies in the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus and his service this year as a Biden delegate. He also subtly characterized Turner — who once colorfully and profanely equated voting for Biden with eating half of a “bowl of shit” — as someone who couldn’t be trusted to work with the new Democratic administration.
“I think it is a significant benefit for Sen. Turner to have those who are coming from the Bernie Sanders movement,” Johnson said. “She earned that, she put the time in with Bernie. I understand that. I supported Joe Biden. I don’t have the national following, but this race is about the 11th Congressional District. A lot of folks want to know, when we go to Washington, who we will stand with. I will stand with Biden–Harris. There will be no question about that.”