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Nina Turner Wants to Be the Squad’s Nick Naylor

She thought Biden was half a bowl of shit; now she’s offering Democrats a different flavor.
July 19, 2021
Nina Turner Wants to Be the Squad’s Nick Naylor
Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner waits backstage to be introduced ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidate rally at Winston-Salem State University on Thursday, February 27, 2020 in Winston-Salem, NC. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In an August 3 primary, Ohio Democrats will choose the all-but-inevitable replacement to former Rep. Marcia Fudge, a run-of-the-mill liberal Democrat who was selected by President Biden to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development after she failed in an extremely unsubtle lobbying effort to be named secretary of agriculture.

Fudge represented the Ohio 11th, one of the state’s heavily gerrymandered congressional districts. It spans the core of downtown Cleveland and its predominantly liberal inner ring suburbs, but thanks to a thin southern line, encapsulates part of nearby Akron, too. While the district encompasses staunchly liberal suburbs like Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, University Heights, and Beachwood, it also comprises much of the city of Cleveland and towns like Warrensville Heights, which is 93 percent black. (Fudge was the latter town’s mayor until 2008, when she went to Congress to replace Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, who died in office.)

The frontrunner in the race to succeed Fudge is Nina Turner, a former state senator and nominee for Ohio secretary of state who gained fame for her rousing performances at Bernie Sanders rallies and her feverish work for him as a surrogate. Turner has danced around the question of whether she’s a Democratic socialist, while signaling that’s where her sympathies lie (Jesus was a socialist!). And the Berners are hoping that on primary night Turner will be the red moon risin’ on the Cuyahoga River.

But Turner is facing a crowded field of wannabes, among whom Shontel Brown, a black Cuyahoga County councilor and the chair of the county’s Democrats, is the candidate who has separated herself as the real contender.

As a result of Turner’s Bernie boosterism, online discussion of the race has broken down along the same Democratic internal fissures that were apparent during the last two presidential primaries. For folks in the Very Online left, it feels like Groundhog Day.

This special election will be the latest test of progressive muscle following a series of face-plants beginning with Bernie’s collapse in the 2020 primary and extending to the failures in the Virginia gubernatorial and New York City mayoral primaries this year.

Recent polls indicate Turner may be in danger of suffering the same fate. Brown’s internal poll showed Turner’s lead shrinking from 32 points to 7 by early July. If accurate, it might be a boon for Ohio Democrats who want to avoid having the controversial Turner as the face of the party in an increasingly red state with two hotly contested statewide elections next fall.

While loyalty to Joe Biden has not driven Democratic primaries in the way the Trump Cult has taken over the intraparty contests on the right, Turner may be the exception that proves the rule.

During the 2020 campaign she said of the choice between Trump and Biden, “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.”

While she may get points for evocative language, as far as being in touch with the Democratic base is concerned that one is juuuusst a bit outside. Biden maintains a 95 percent approval rating with Democratic voters and the notion that he is fecal matter that is only marginally better than former President Reichstag Fire does not give one the sense that Turner was reading the room when it comes to her target electorate’s view of the bad orange man.

That wasn’t the first time she had expressed such disdain for the Democratic establishment that she was willing to be in league with Trump’s interests. in 2016, when the country faced the choice between a middle-of-the-road Democrat who would be the first woman president and a buffoonish, bigoted, serial sexual assaulter, Turner took a page from the right-wing anti-anti-Trump playbook and refused to reveal whom she voted for (maybe it was Edmund Burke? or, more her style, Antonio Gramsci?).

When trying to divine where her secret ballot landed, the paroxysm of excitement she displayed over Russophile spoiler Jill Stein’s candidacy during a speech at the “people’s convention” in 2016 sure provided a clue. A few months later she was on MSNBC and when the host described her as a Clinton supporter she corrected him, saying that she is “not backing anyone in the general election” and “wanted to clear that up right away.”

Being a turd in Biden’s punchbowl isn’t Turner’s only issue as the primary approaches.

Last week the Daily Beast tagged Turner for breaking her “no lobbyist money” pledge. But it was the source of the donation that was more revealing and problematic for Turner than the hypocrisy of breaking the pledge.

The money came from a director at Amare Public Affairs, a communications, lobbying, and astroturf operation that Turner co-founded and that as recently as last week still featured Turner as the prominent main image on its website, despite her status as a candidate for office. It’s not a great look for a politician to lend her name and image to a consulting firm that trades on access.

But there’s an even worse problem. It turns out that the firm is not the goody-two-shoes, “socially conscious” progressive activist outfit it presents as.

Amare is a classic example of a ‘white hat’ P.R. firm being created to provide reputational cover for a ‘black hat’ firm that specializes in consulting for more unsavory clients. Amare is a spinoff of Mercury Public Affairs, whose clients are so grody that it is nothing short of a caricature of the swampy D.C. consultant class.

Take a look at a few choice cuts from the Mercury client list:

And of course, Mercury famously collabed with every dictator’s main man in Washington, Paul Manafort, on a front-group for the Russia-backed Ukranian autocrat Viktor Yanukovych.

So, after Nina Turner left public service she considered her options, looked around, and decided the right fit for her was a lobbying firm that is staffed by Trump stooges and represents the interests of tyrants, polluters, tobacco companies, Israeli hackers, and Chinese Communist suppliers.

These guys needed someone to launder their reputation for a few bucks and Turner threw her hand in the air like she really didn’t care. (DO U?)

As the great Nick Naylor once said, “Everyone’s got a mortgage to pay.”

The question is whether any of this will stick to Turner or whether a motivated progressive base will add a new member to the progressive Squad.

She has tried to lock in her (apparent) frontrunner status by running a campaign that expands out from the Bernie base, with key local endorsements from former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, outgoing Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, and other establishment Democrats. Turner also has a number of high-profile endorsements from fifteen sitting members of the U.S. House and Senate. Obviously, Bernie and AOC endorsed her, but so did Rep. Ted Lieu, a California congressman who grew up in Cleveland. And we would be remiss not to include her support from the Akron Socialists!

While Turner has the endorsement of the Cleveland Heights Democratic club, Brown has the Shaker Heights and Beachwood Democratic clubs. The unions are split, and the interest groups and big PACs are, too. While Turner has MoveOn and the Sierra Club, Brown has the Democratic Majority for Israel, the NewDem Action Fund, and Run Sister Run.

Brown’s plan for a come-from-behind victory is threefold: localize the race, bang home an endorsement from the most recent incumbent’s mother, and attempt to cobble together the Biden 2020 primary coalition with black voters and center-left Democrats and even (thanks to Ohio’s open primary rules) independents or Republicans.

Brown has earned the endorsements of, among others, the Congressional Black Caucus PAC; Hillary Clinton; Armond Budish, the Cuyahoga County executive; and Richard Cordray, Ohio’s former attorney general and head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And her platform reflects the mainstream Democratic playbook with a focus on expanding health care, COVID recovery, and taking action to stop gun violence.

But Brown’s attempt to really reignite the magic of Biden’s South Carolina comeback began late last month with the endorsement of Jim “The Closer” Clyburn:

He said his decision to back Ms. Brown, the chairwoman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, was not about Mr. Sanders, or even Ms. Turner, who remains the favorite before the contest on Aug. 3 in the heavily Democratic district. But he took a swipe at what he called the “sloganeering” of the party’s left flank, which has risen to power with calls for “Medicare for all,” and to “abolish ICE” and “defund the police.”

“What I try to do is demonstrate by precept and example how we are to proceed as a party,” Mr. Clyburn said in an interview. “When I spoke out against sloganeering, like ‘Burn, baby, burn’ in the 1960s and ‘defund the police,’ which I think is cutting the throats of the party, I know exactly where my constituents are. They are against that, and I’m against that.”

Clyburn reportedly intends to campaign for Brown in the district on the weekend before the election.

Brown has stayed away from direct attacks, though a platoon of Super PACs has deployed to the district to help drive the wedge between Turner and the Biden base, with a series of negative ads, like this from Democratic Majority for Israel. The latest salvo comes from the Third Way’s center-left Shield PAC. They are launching a digital ad campaign targeting Turner because, as they told us, “We can’t afford someone this openly hostile to President Biden and VP Harris.”

Shield PAC official Matt Bennett said of Turner, “She’s in a bowl of trouble. Not a half bowl, but a full bowl.”

While us coastal elite pundits and the Twitter bubble are obviously attracted to creating a Bernie vs. Biden redux narrative, Ohioans on the ground caution that those may not be the most important dynamics at play.

Former Ohio State Party Chairman Chris Redfern told us this is a “local race vs. a national race” and noted that over the past few years Brown has been in the district more than Turner. Ohio Democratic strategist Aaron Pickrell echoed Redfern, “In Cleveland it’s not playing out like Bernie vs. Biden day to day.”

Local strategists also noted that the race will likely be decided by thousands of votes, not tens of thousands, and early indicators like absentee ballot requests indicate this will likely be a low-turnout affair that doesn’t say as much about the mood of the Democratic party nationally as it may seem on the surface. And a low-turnout primary also might hamper Turner, as the young voters who have been driving the energy behind progressive candidates have not traditionally been reliable voters, particularly in off-year elections.

Brown’s ace in the hole in a localized, low-turnout primary isn’t President Biden, or an elected official at all. It’s the mother of Marcia Fudge, the former holder of the seat, whom Redfern said was the main driver behind Brown’s momentum.

Brown has featured “Mrs. Saffold” in a charming 30-second TV ad running in the district. She notes that her daughter, Sec. Fudge, as a member of Biden’s cabinet, cannot endorse anyone—yet the ad ends with the pointed phrase “we’re voting for Shontel Brown.”

Is that the Royal We? The Editorial? Yes it is:

While this race may be localized, as bizarro Tip O’Neill might say, in 2021 all politics is national.

If Turner holds off the surging Brown, the biggest impact will likely be less in her congressional voting record than in her willingness to be another lightning rod in the caucus: Unapologetically progressive, willing to be the spin artist for the anti-establishment left and unafraid to drop a nice big shitburger on the doorstep of the White House when the opportunity arises.

Jim Swift and Tim Miller

Jim Swift is a Bulwark senior editor and Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large.