Nina Turner Is Coming Out Swinging — Again

Nina Turner

This week, Nina Turner announced a second run for Congress in Ohio’s 11th District. She spoke with Jacobin about fighting pro-corporate Democrats, frustrations with the Biden administration, and why “evil never sleeps, so good can never take a vacation.”

Nina Turner speaks at a campaign stop on July 24, 2021, in Cleveland, Ohio, during her last congressional campaign. (Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

Few faces — and voices — on the campaign trail with Senator Bernie Sanders were as memorable as Nina Turner’s. She was one of Sanders’s most visible surrogates, served as a 2020 campaign cochair, and was a frequent speaker at Bernie events. The former Ohio state senator has now announced a run for Congress, in Ohio’s Eleventh District. It’s Turner’s second run for the seat, having lost to Shontel Brown in an August 2021 special election. (“Establishment prevails,” Politico wrote in its headline covering the outcome.)

Turner spoke with Jacobin deputy editor Micah Uetricht about her race, the state of the Democratic Party and the Joe Biden administration, the need to avoid political despair, and why progressive politicians have to take their ideas “to the people.” The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You can also watch the interview at our YouTube channel here.

Micah Uetricht

You’ve recently launched a campaign for Congress in Ohio’s Eleventh District. You ran for this seat recently in a special election and lost. What’s different about the campaign this time around?

Nina Turner

The concerns and the needs, the challenges and the opportunities are still the same. That is why I am running this race again. I ran in a special election in 2021. This 2022 election is the natural life cycle for this seat. I’m running because of the great needs in my district and in greater Cleveland. Cleveland is the poorest city of its size. People are suffering.

There’s a difference between voting the right way and fighting for something, standing up for something, giving it all you’ve got, and being out there on the front lines with the people. Whether it’s standing with the members of the house of labor, which exploded last year in 2021 and into 2022 — it is a beautiful thing to see labor stand up and say, “We deserve more.” I want to see that same spirit flow out for all working people; all working people deserve more.

That’s why I’m running again — it’s the fierce urgency. To paraphrase the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr, it was urgent in 2021, in 2020, in 2019, and it’s urgent right now in 2022.

People deserve to live a good life. And there are some components to that: having health care, having clean air, clean water, and clean food. We’re talking about the bare minimum things that people not only in the United States deserve, not only in the greater Cleveland district deserve, but that people all over the world deserve.

Micah Uetricht

You’ve spoken very freely, in the media and elsewhere, about your criticisms of the Joe Biden administration and of Democratic Party leadership generally. One year into the Biden administration, what has gone right? And what’s gone wrong?

Nina Turner

The administration’s and Congress’s response [to the pandemic] was necessary to lift the people who are suffering the most in this country, which is far too many people. That was a great start.

There is a “however” to this. In the midst of a pandemic, we should be doing a whole lot more.

I believe that the president should use executive orders as much as he can to do the right thing for the people. Canceling student debt comes to mind first. But the president could also use his executive order pen to move marijuana off of [the] Schedule One [drug list], as a matter of criminal justice.

What can the president do at this moment with the power of the executive order? As we talk right now, the Child Tax Credit has expired. It was one of the best things that the administration and Congress did, cutting childhood poverty in half. We understand that poverty is a policy choice. Why not make that credit permanent and let us cut poverty by 100 percent?

I also believe that the president should gas up the jet. He is very diplomatic with two senators in particular, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. I don’t fault him for that. Maybe that is the way to go at first. But in the words of the immortal Dr Maya Angelou, when people show you who they are, you have to believe them.

I want to see the president of the United States stand up for what he ran on in 2020: canceling student debt up to at least $10,000. Those of us on the progressive side want it all the way, but let’s start with that $10,000. And with going ham for voting rights in this country, because that is the fundamental basis on which people get elected.

If we want to have more Democrats elected, we have to make sure that we are expanding and protecting access to the ballot box for everybody — not just people who vote Democrat. This means using the bully pulpit more, painting the vision — and also standing up for that vision.

That doesn’t just apply to the president of the United States of America; that applies to the Democratic Party, my party, which has the power. You can’t act like you are helpless when your party controls the House of Representatives, the United States Senate, and the presidency. We should act like it, and go ham on behalf of the working poor and the barely middle class.

Micah Uetricht

Progressives, socialists, and other Biden critics on the Left were surprised to see him come out of the gate pretty strongly on a number of issues, including some early proposals in the Build Back Better bill. As time went by, it was whittled down. And many of us were disappointed by the president’s handling of questions like Senators Manchin and Sinema.

What is your assessment of the Build Back Better process thus far? What should have been done, and what could be done going forward?

Nina Turner

It’s the least that we can do. We went from progressives wanting $10 trillion to almost nothing. We still can’t get even that. Nothing passed. It’s Build Back Better, but less. It’s another example of how the president and this Congress need to do more, especially in the face of the pandemic. I want to see it be more robust.

That being said, Senators Manchin and Sinema have shown time and time again who they really are, and that they really don’t care about changing the material conditions of the people who need it the most. We’re at a point now where the bill has to be broken up. I don’t agree with that, but let’s go ahead and call the roll. We are where we are right now. So, let’s put paid family leave on the table and see who’s going to vote it up and who’s going vote it down. That goes for Republicans, too, because we shouldn’t let them off the hook.

We have a two-party system in the United States of America. One of those parties ought to stand up for the people, and given the state of the Republican Party in the twenty-first century, it needs to be the Democrats. It needs to be my party.

I think that the president should take that out to the people, saying, “These are the folks standing in the way of an agenda that will help you, your family, and your community. And we cannot stand for it.” He should say, “There will be a consequence” — meaning a primary, in the same way that Senator Bernard Sanders is saying.

Now, some of us have been saying that for a while. You have got to let these people know that, for certain things, there has to be a consequence. Standing in the way of expanding and protecting voting rights so that you can keep a Senate rule intact — a rule that has been used to bump up against civil rights and racial justice in this country — there is something wrong with that.

Congress is elected to meet the needs of their people, period. There are some things we need to have some agreement on. The right to vote is one of those things we all should have agreement on — including the Republicans, but we know what they’re doing in legislatures all across the country. We don’t have any agreement with most Republicans right now, and we have to deal with that. Having bipartisanship for its own sake doesn’t make sense to me. When you make an offer on voting rights and the other side doesn’t want to play ball, we have to say that we’re going to battle over this.

We have to be able to critique our own party. We’ve got fifty votes and a vice president who can break a tie. As Democrats, we have to deal with the people in our own house before we start talking about the Republicans.

Micah Uetricht

Here’s a thought experiment: Nina Turner gets elected to Congress at the same time that Joe Biden takes office in 2021 and is in Congress as Biden assumes the presidency over the past year. As a member of Congress, what would you have done over the last year?

You’ve said that Joe Biden should “gas up the jet.” I assume you mean that he should be going to West Virginia to put pressure on Joe Manchin. What would Representative Nina Turner’s strategy have looked like over the past year?

Nina Turner

I would be gassing up the jet, gassing up the cars. At some point, you have to take it to the people. I think about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and what he was able to do. His policy was certainly not perfect, especially when it came to race and to the African-American community in particular. But the fundamentals were really solid.

President FDR came to realize that in the midst of a crushing depression, the people’s power that he carried was not just about pushing public policy through, but also getting intimate with the American people. That fireside chat model is not old-fashioned. It never goes out of style: taking it to the people and getting them motivated and energized.

Nina Turner speaks at a rally for Bernie Sanders on March 23, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Sara Mossman / Wikimedia Commons)

It can’t just be about the words; it has to be about the American people. “Let me tell you why I need you. This is what I’m trying to do. We’ve got two Democrats and the Republican Party, but let me deal with the people in my party first, those who have outright said that they are not going to help push this agenda.” And so, he rallies the American people in a very intimate way to his side, for the vision that he has for this country. You have got to be able to do that.

I specialize in that, being an activist, a leader. I’ve stood side by side with the house of labor. I went to Bessemer, Alabama [during the Amazon union vote]. This isn’t new to me.

At some point when the die is cast, you have to take it to the streets. That’s what my campaign is about: taking it to the streets and helping to give people something that they can feel. And a leader is certainly not expected to do all of that by themselves. The people entrust us with their power.

People who have been elected or who are elected right now must understand that this isn’t about them. This is about the people having entrusted them for a limited amount of time with their power. When their power is being misused, you have to go back to them and say, “I need your help. I want to make sure that everybody in this country has unfettered access to the ballot box, but two people are standing in the way of it.” (I believe some other folks are hiding behind Manchin and Sinema, but I digress.)

“Help me. Do you believe that voting rights should be unfettered? Yes? I need you to put some pressure on them, and for them to have a consequence. Sinema, Manchin, we’re coming for you, because obviously you’re Republicans.”

Micah Uetricht

This sounds like a basic commitment to doing small-d democratic politics. Yet this seems foreign to so many in the Democratic Party. Do you agree with that? If so, why is it so weird to hear somebody who is running for office say that they want to take it to the people? This should be the 101 of popular politics and policy-making.

Nina Turner

I agree. Part of the problem is the zeitgeist of people in the political bubble. A lot of these elected officials really do think it’s all about them. And many of them are disconnected from the real pain of everyday people.

Two things can be true at once. Yes, the bipartisan infrastructure bill was passed. Does it have some good elements? Absolutely, especially on the public transit side. There’s a “however” to that. When you really distill it down, the people who benefit from those kinds of big policies are the corporatists. They’re going to feel it first.

What is having a paved road when your house is in foreclosure? What is having a paved road when you can’t put food on the table? What is having a paved road when you can’t take time off when you’re sick, especially in the midst of a pandemic, because the federal government won’t push these corporations to do right by their people and won’t even pass a public policy to say that they can have paid family and medical leave?

It’s not an “either-or.” We need “and.” Some of these folks are getting high off their own supply. They think they’re more important than the whole. And some of these folks don’t give a damn. That’s the truth of it. Because in the midst of a pandemic, how can you be so heartless and not see that we need universal health care?

We cannot continue to commodify health care. How can you continue to let the pharmaceutical industry dictate prices of prescription drugs in this country, when in other industrialized nations, that is not the way it is? How can you have such callous indifference to people suffering?

The corporatist agenda of both political parties is out of step with the real needs of the American people, be they poor, working poor, or barely middle class. If you are not part of the 1 percent, or even the 5 percent — if you are not in the upper echelons, if you are not one of those 660 billionaires in this country — one thing can throw you off, even if you are at the top of the working class.

We’re all working class. Some people are at the bottom. Some people are in the middle, and some people are at the top. But if you don’t have a trust fund; if you don’t have a sugar daddy, a sugar mama, or a sugar somebody who can bail you out; if a catastrophic health incident happens to you or to somebody you love, even if you are blessed to be on the upper side of the middle class, it can wipe you out.

Why are we putting people in these kinds of situations when we can have public policy that gives everybody a true opportunity to have a good life? Some of these people don’t give a damn; we have to be honest about it.

Micah Uetricht

Anybody who’s ever listened to you in the media or on the campaign trail has heard your critique of the corporate nature of both parties. You usually describe it as fighting both the neofascists and the neoliberals. That includes fighting within your own party; you’re running as a Democrat.

When you do that, the party doesn’t just sit there and take it. The pro-corporate wing of the party fights back very hard. You seemed to experience that when you ran last year, and we can list off a million examples: Bernie Sanders’s campaigns, India Walton’s run for mayor of Buffalo.

How do you approach this “both-and” of being in the Democratic Party but also recognizing that the party leadership does not like you, does not like people like you, and does not want to advance a working-class agenda?

Nina Turner

They’re trying to snuff out people like me, or India, or even Senator Sanders. In 2020, with just the very thought that he was gonna run again, there were articles out there about people going to Martha’s Vineyard to plot against him, before he even announced.

Their ultimate goal is to snatch the hope from the movement itself, because they know that conscious-minded people on the move cannot be deterred, cannot be stopped. That is their ultimate goal. Now they have to target people like me, people like India Walton, Senator Sanders, and Congresswoman Cori Bush, to snatch hope away from the movement itself.

I am in this, as are many people who believe the things I do, for the larger goal here. Cleveland was a stop on the Underground Railroad. And our name was Hope, because we were the last place before the enslaved people trying to escape could get to Canada.

Hope is an absolute motivator for humankind. We thrive on it, because it is the belief that no matter how hard times are, we can get through. For me, whether I get another extra-special title or not, I am here for the long haul to continue to inspire hope. Hope is an action word. And that’s what they fear the most.

I really do believe that these corporatists would do something to their own mamas to try to stop the progressives. And we have seen example after example of that. That is why publications like Jacobin are so important. Independent media is important. We all have a role to play in being on this justice journey. It is a journey that each generation has to take up in its own time — building on what people who came before us did, building and fighting in our lifetime and setting the next play for the next generation of freedom fighters to come. We will keep this going. As long as there is evil in the world, good must continue to push back.

Good can never take a vacation. Evil never sleeps, so good can never take a vacation. We are in an epic battle for humanity. That’s what these races represent.

It goes back to this: Do we believe that people deserve to live a good life? What are the fundamental principles of living a good life? What is the social contract that we will have with one another? People can build on that foundation. That’s what those of us on the progressive left are fighting for.

Micah Uetricht

Many Jacobin readers are familiar with your work on the national level, but you are running in Cleveland, in Ohio’s Eleventh District. Can you tell us a little bit about what the agenda for your district would look like with you in office? What is your constituency feeling right now? What do they need?

Nina Turner

We need jobs. Cleveland is the largest poor city in the nation. People need resources. That is economic justice in all of its forms. I often talk about race and class together. We’re gonna fight together, black and white, Hispanic, Asian, everybody else in between — all of us, no matter how people identify, we rise and fall together.

That is what the labor movement is showing us. Make no mistake: there are Trumpites, Berniecrats, Clintonites, Bidenites, whatever people are calling themselves these days, Turnerites, side by side in the labor movement. At John Deere and Kellogg’s, all the people who stood up last year were saying to the powerful in these corporations that they deserved better, and that they were going to strike for better.

We are going to stand up for better. We are going to demand better. Those people put aside their political ideologies to unite based on what they have in common. That is what I am standing up for. That is what my district needs. In the greater Cleveland area, we have lead concerns, job concerns, and quality of life concerns.

My campaign is about what it was about last time I ran. It is about changing the material conditions of the people who are suffering the most. I believe if we take care of the people who are suffering the most, everybody else is going to be all right. That is what it is about. That is what my community’s needs are. And that is what I’m going to continue to fight for.

Micah Uetricht

A lot of people are feeling really demoralized right now — particularly after the 2020 Sanders campaign, but just in general: things seem to get worse by the day around here. It’s very difficult to keep alive the kind of spirit you were just talking about as being essential for us to be able to transform the world into a decent and dignified place.

You’re just launching a campaign that will count on people not being demoralized but excited about what you’re up to. What’s your pep talk to pick them up when they’re feeling down about the state of the world right now?

Nina Turner

The power rests with all of us. If we are willing to put a little extra on our ordinary, extraordinary things can happen. We’re gonna lose some, we’re gonna win some. And I’m not just talking about races; even in our individual lives, sometimes things go according to plan, and sometimes they don’t. But there’s a saying that if you can look up, you can get up.

That is my message to our movement, baby. We can look up, we can get up. We must keep pushing because we really don’t have any choice. All that we love is on the line.

Either we’ll sit it out and allow the corporatists of this country, the people who are obsessed with greed, to win, or we will continue to fight. It really is as simple as that. And we must embrace the fact that sometimes we’re going to lose and sometimes we’re going to win, but we must keep pushing.

My love language is quotes. One of my sheroes, Harriet Tubman, the Moses of her people, said, “If you hear the dogs, keep going; if there’s torches behind you, keep going; if you want a taste of freedom, never stop, keep going.” That is my message. She was talking about freedom in the context of African people and their descendants being enslaved. And she was saying that if you want your very physical freedom, you must keep going; even if they’re coming after you with the torches and the barking dogs, you must keep going.

That is my message. And that is why I want this movement to keep going. I need this movement to invest in me again, just as they did last year. I need them to do it again, to invest, to keep going.

So, even in our saddest moments, we must keep going. Our mission is so high, we can’t get over it. Our mission is so low, we can’t get under it. And our mission is so wide, we cannot get around it. We can’t give up. We’ve got to keep going.

One more quote from Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr: he said that we can have finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope. That’s it. And we can’t let anybody make us feel like what we are fighting for is wrong. People might not agree with the progressive left, but what reasonable person can argue with the fact that wanting universal health care is right? That wanting people to have paid family medical leave is right? That wanting to have the president cancel student debt is right? That wanting people to have a living wage is right?

If those things are wrong, I don’t want to be right.