Nina Turner on Her Loss and Future

The race to replace Marcia Fudge in Ohio’s 11th District was hers to lose — so what happened?

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images


In December, Rep. Marcia Fudge was nominated to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development by President-elect Joe Biden. Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and surrogate for both the 2016 and 2020 Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, quickly emerged as the candidate to beat in the race to fill her seat. Yet when the dust of the primary had cleared on August 3, Shontel Brown, the favored candidate of the Democratic Party establishment, was victorious. Turner joins Ryan Grim to discuss what went wrong, her future political ambitions, and what progressives can learn from the race.

[Introductory music.]

RG: On December 8, Joe Biden nominated Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge to be secretary of housing and urban development.

Newscaster: Marcia Fudge, congresswoman from Ohio, nominated not for the position that a lot of people wanted her for — at least, in the Democratic Party, secretary of agriculture, but Housing and Urban Development.

RG: She made an odd choice for the role, because her expertise is in agriculture, and because she had lobbied, with the help of Jim Clyburn, to be secretary of agriculture. Biden was reserving that spot for Tom Vilsack, whose absolutely wretched tenure as ag secretary under Obama somehow meant he had to get the gig a second time around, even as antitrust advocates and civil rights leaders pleaded with Biden not to name Vilsack.

The pick had a patronizing feel, like when Trump filled his HUD position with the Black guy he knew, Ben Carson. Fudge, however, had a background in policy and is an adept politician, so she could fill the role comfortably, even if it wasn’t her thing.

Within a week of that awkward announcement, Nina Turner announced she’d be running to replace Fudge in the upcoming special election.

Nina Turner: I am fighting because of love. I want everybody to be able to live off their greatest greatness of love. So I am asking you, if you are a voter in this district, elect me to be the next congresswoman of this district. God bless you all.

RG: Turner had represented a huge chunk of the district as a state senator, and was well-known in the community. Before she became Bernie Sanders’ firebrand surrogate in his 2016 and 2020 campaigns, she had been a more traditional politician, and had built enough relationships with the local establishment that she was able to brand herself as a unity candidate going into the race; she’d need it, because she had two tough soundbites of her own making to overcome with more traditional, team Blue Democrats.

Here she was 8 days before the 2016 presidential election:

Thomas Roberts: I know that you were a super Bernie Sanders supporter. And in light of this, and the fact that you did get on board and back Hillary Clinton, does any of this make you regret that —?

NT: Thomas. Thomas. I’m not — I’m not backing anybody in this general election. Let me clear that up right away.

RG: And in 2020, she made a remark about voting for Biden that became central in the race for the House.

NT: You got two bowls of shit in front of you, and you got to pick one. That’s the situation we’re in right now: bowl number one or bowl number two.

RG: Despite all that, thanks to her skill on the stump, her proud embrace of a bold progressive agenda, and her long relationships in the district, she was the early frontrunner.

Newscaster: A new poll out today by the campaign of one of the hopefuls shows a wide gap in the race. The poll, commissioned by a former state senator Nina Turner, shows her with a 50 percent support among likely voters.

RG: Among many of the Bernie diehards, there’s nobody outside of Bernie — and maybe even including Bernie — as beloved as Turner.

NT: We gone get glad because we’re gonna use this energy in the synergy that we have to help Senator Bernard Sanders make it to the White House, and baby when we get to the White House — y’all ready for that?

RG: Those former Bernie supporters came out for her big time, and she was quickly raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from across the country. Polls showed her ahead by 30 points.

But part-way through the race, international events intervened.

Newscaster: Breaking overnight, new explosions rock Gaza and Israel as fighting in the Middle East escalates and the death toll rises.

RG: All of a sudden, Israel-Palestine became an issue in the campaign. When the original four members of the Squad ran for Congress, the issue wasn’t central to any of their races, even though Rashida Tlaib would be the first Palestinian -merican woman to serve in Congress, and she and Ilhan Omar were both outspoken critics of Israel’s human rights abuses.

After her 2018 primary win, Ocasio-Cortez’s star shot straight up, as she nailed one media appearance after another. Then came Israel-Palestine.

Margaret Hoover: You use the term the occupation of Palestine?

Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez: I think what I meant is like the settlements, places where Palestinians are experiencing difficulties.

MH: Do you think you can expand on that?

AOC: [Laughs.] I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue.

RG: After being sworn in the first controversy to hit a Squad member involved a tweet about the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC:

Newscaster: — suggesting money was driving U.S. politicians to defend Israel, writing, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”

RG: In 2020, Justice Democrats, the leftist group widely associated with AOC, backed Jamaal Bowman in a primary challenge to Eliot Engel, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and one of Israel’s most outspoken and lockstep defenders. AOC endorsed Bowman, and even in heavily Jewish precincts, Bowman trounced Engel.

In May of this year, as Israel launched its assault on Gaza, for the first time in history a parade of Democrats went to the House floor to denounce the attack:

Rep. Ilhan Omar: I feel the pain of every child who’s forced to hide under their beds, because they fear for their life, and every parent who deals with that anguish. And I wish we, as a nation, treated that pain equally. But right now, we are not.

AOC: This is our business because we are playing a role in it, and the United States must acknowledge its role in the injustice and human rights violations of Palestinians.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib: I want to read something a mother named Eman in Gaza and husband wrote two days ago. She said, “Tonight, I put the kids to sleep in our bedroom, so that when we die, we die together, and no one would live to mourn the loss of another.”

RG: This week, Democratic leaders tried to slip another $1 billion in funding for Israel into a spending package, but progressives pressured them to take it out, setting off a fight within the caucus.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, whose steadfast support of Israel makes Engel’s look soft, pushed for a standalone vote on the House floor to make sure the money went through. Progressives urged him not to force an unnecessarily charged vote, arguing it would only exacerbate the situation, and that he could easily include it in the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act.

Hoyer put it on the floor anyway, and it quickly became clear that Democratic leaders were trying to isolate the Squad and their allies and paint them as antisemites who didn’t even support a project aimed at defending civilians from rockets raining down on them.

The bill was framed by Democrats as simply fulfilling an agreement Obama had made with Israel to fund the Iron Dome, and Pelosi herself made that claim on the House floor. But, in fact, the text of the legislation was explicit that this is a new, additional billion dollars: “Such funds are in addition to funds provided pursuant to the U.S.-Israel Iron Dome Procurement Agreement.”

The claim that this was not additional money was just a lie.

The debate was ferocious. Here’s Rep. Rashida Tlaib:

RT: I rise in opposition to this supplemental. I will not support an effort to enable and support war crimes, human rights abuses and violence. We cannot talk be talking only about Israelis need for safety at a time when Palestinians are living under a violent apartheid system and are dying — from what Human Rights Watch has said — are war crimes.

RG: Florida Democrat Ted Deutch then rose to respond:

Rep. Ted Deutch: Mr. Speaker, I cannot allow one of my colleagues to stand on the floor of the House of Representatives and label the Jewish democratic state of Israel an apartheid state. I reject it.

To falsely characterize the State of Israel is consistent with those — let’s be clear — it’s consistent with those who advocate for the dismantling of the one Jewish state in the world. And when there is no place on the map for one Jewish state, that’s anti-semitism. And I reject that.

RG: Steny Hoyer made the same argument, and also thanked Deutch for speaking:

Rep. Steny Hoyer: Support for Israel has traditionally and must always be a bipartisan issue. Since its founding millennia ago in some respects, more particularly politically 1948 to today, Israel has been under constant threat of attack from those who would deny its right to exist.

RG: Jamaal Bowman voted yes and initially ten Democrats voted no: Tlaib, Omar, Cori Bush, Ayanna Pressley, Andre Carson, Marie Newman, Raul Grijalva, Chuy Garcia, and Ocasio-Cortez.

But then Ocasio-Cortez, breaking down in tears on the House floor, switched her vote to present.

The politics of Israel-Palestine are now inescapably linked with the rising energy on the Democratic party’s left.

That proved to be the case in Nina Turner’s race, and not to her benefit: On August 3, she lost to Shontel Brown by just over 4,000 votes.

Brianna Keilar: A big victory overnight for the Biden wing of the Democratic Party, moderate Shontel Brown, defeating the progressive candidate Nina Turner in a special primary election in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District.

Turnout was minimal, with Brown winning 35,504 votes to Turner’s 31,202.

Brown won’t be sworn in until November and, as Turner told me, she’s considering challenging her for the seat again in 2022.

First, she has to figure out why she lost.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: Joining me now for a frank conversation on the race and the state of progressive politics is former state Senator Nina Turner.

Nina, welcome to Deconstructed.

NT: It is wonderful to be with you, Ryan.

RG: Good to see you here in Washington, D.C.

NT: Yes, on a rainy, rainy afternoon.

RG: Indeed.

So I was hoping we could kind of break this campaign conversation down into like three different buckets — and curious for your take on other elements to add in.

But on the one hand, things that were out of your control.

NT: Yes.

RG: Everything from outside spending, the way that your opponent Shontel Brown decided to run the campaign, the way that the governor decided to set the date of the campaign, those types of things.

NT: Yeah.

RG: Then we can talk about things that are within your control: the tactics and strategy of the campaign itself.

And then things that are sort of within your control, the things that predate the campaign, where the progressive movement is, that sort of thing.

NT: Sure.

RG: You want to start with things you couldn’t control?

NT: Why don’t we. Let’s just start with the ugly, first.

RG: Right. So the race is only a race because Marcia Fudge is appointed to be a HUD Secretary.

President Joseph R. Biden: For secretary of housing and urban development, I am really pleased to nominate congressman Marcia Fudge.

And so when you saw this opening, there are a lot of people who thought well, this election could come, what? As early as May?

NT: That’s right. And Ryan, our campaign believed that for the longest time, because we did a calculation, and we also talked to experts, people down in Columbus who sort of knew what some of the rules were. So yeah, we thought it was gonna be a very short race.

RG: And it seems like it was a partisan decision to keep it open as long as possible. Because here we are, Pelosi can now only lose three votes for her reconciliation package. And partly that’s because this seat and one other seat have been held open by Republican governors.

Did you get an indication that that’s what drove the decision?

NT: I didn’t! I know to some surprise of Democrats and/or progressives — sometimes that’s not one in the same, so let me make a distinction —

RG: Mhmm.

NT: But the Ohio Revised Code is very prescriptive about timing. And really what held up the date is the slowness by which the United States Senate actually confirmed her. That is really what did it.

So no, there was no — not to say that if there was opportunity to do it… But in this case, Governor DeWine did not play politics with this. The trigger was it had to be a vacancy.

It took the United States Senate forever to confirm her. And so as the clock was ticking, it ended up being in August, but there was no foolishness on the Republican’s part in Ohio, it was just a timing mechanism. And the prescription of the Ohio Revised Code is very clear in terms of the dates.

RG: And so if the Senate would have moved her through immediately —

NT: That’s right, then that primary would have most likely happened in May.

RG: Much earlier.

NT: Yes. That’s right.

RG: And so initially thinking that the race is going to be in May. And when you sat down and looked at the race, what was your sense of how many people would turn out? Like what was your quote-unquote win number? And then what was your path that you saw to winning?

NT: I knew that the turnout was going to be very low. I mean, on my team, we studied other special elections as best we could. I mean, that was a unique situation for the 11th Congressional District.

So we knew that the win number could be as low as 15,000 to maybe about 50,000. It just depended. And that’s not the win the number, but the range of people who would run — and because there were so many people in the race, 13 people, you don’t need a lot to win.

And believing, at first, that the race was going to actually be in may also influenced staffing and how we picked staff. And for me, and my campaign manager, it was really leaning on people who had done something like this before, similarly, because we didn’t have a lot of time to train up, if that makes sense.

One of the observations, looking back on my race right now, once our campaign realized that the primary was not going to be in May, we should have immediately made a mid-course correction.

RG: So when did it become clear that Shontel Brown was going to be the kind of one on one opponent?

Newscaster: After starting with a crowded field, the primary, which is on August 3, has come down to former state senator and Bernie Sanders aide Nina Turner against Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Chairwoman Shontel Brown.

NT: Even that part has some nuance to it. From the moment I announced my run, which was on December 15, the progressive world went crazy in the positive, because for them it was: Wow. They see me, Nina Turner, as a leader, a very strong leader of this progressive movement and also my association ,my work with Senator Bernard Sanders, and for them, a lot of them I heard: Wow, this is our opportunity. They stole it from Senator Sanders — they being the power structure — to help Senator Nina Turner, we’re gonna do this!

RG: We can get ’em back now.

NT: Yeah. Yeah. That kind of thing. And I was told very early on by very well-connected people in the political world and in Cleveland that there was going to be a “Anybody but Nina” campaign launched, and that they were going to come at me with a type of firepower unseen in an election of this type.

And what I mean by that, the seat is securely Democrat. So for more corporatist Dems, or people who are “any blue will do,” it shouldn’t have mattered, because the seat was gonna go to a Democrat. And what that person told me, as we know, now turned out to be true: 13 people in the race, and all of the firepower came in against me. And it was clear that Ms. Brown was the selected one; I think it could have been any of the other candidates — at least maybe two or three of the other candidates. So it was not so much about her as it was about me.

So that became really clear early, because she is also the mentee of the former congresswoman. So the local power structure also coalesced.

RG: And she was the local power structure.

NT: Right, right. She was chair of the county party, which failed greatly during the presidential election — but that’s a story for another time.

But yeah, she was and still is the power structure. But also, you know, being the mentee of the former Congresswoman doesn’t hurt because then even people who may think this might not necessarily be the right candidate for our district, if they’re fond of or have relationship with the former Congresswoman, people are gonna fall in line pretty quickly. And that happened.

RG: And so you knew the big money was coming.

NT: I did, Ryan. I knew they were coming. I guess I did not realize how deep and how hard they would go.

RG: Nina Turner is not a real Democrat. You can’t trust her. When she had the chance to endorse Hillary Clinton, and help the Democrats beat Donald Trump, she was flirting with Jill Stein. You can’t trust her.

NT: And I should have because I was side by side with Senator Bernie Sanders. And as I recall, even the hint that he may run in 2020, there were all kinds of articles and big, major national newspapers making it clear that there was gonna be an “Anybody but Bernie” campaign launched as well. And that impacted me. And I did have some people tell me because I supported Senator Sanders, they were coming for me, too.

RG: Right. So you ended up raising, by the end, over $6 million?

NT: Yes, the movement came to my rescue.

RG: And she ended up raising only about $2.7ish million.

NT: Yeah, so close to three.

RG: And what’s interesting about that, actually, is that some of the outside super PAC groups spent their money on text messaging and email campaigns driving money to her.

NT: That’s right.

RG: So while the stats will, on paper, say she raised almost $3 million, and then something like $2.6-$2.7 million was spent on the outside to benefit her, actually, a lot of the money that she raised came from the super PACs. But you know, there’s a way you can use Facebook and text messaging and email to kind of drive money —

NT: That’s right.

RG: — so it appears like she has more, and also then she can control how she spends that money, rather than having to signal through the red box. And let’s talk about that red box.

NT: Let’s talk about it. I read this tremendous article in The Intercept

RG: Excellent publication.

NT: — written by this journalist by the name of Ryan Grim, peeling back the layers.

And regardless, I want to take the 11th Congressional District race out of this just for a minute, and I want folks who are listening to us to understand how a red box, and anything that thwarts the democratic process in a way that makes it muddy, is wrong. And Citizens United, there’s so many loopholes in that, and that’s why this candidate was able to do that.

So a red box in the 11th district in Ohio could be a red box in the 11th district in Illinois, or anywhere. So this is not just about this one race. This is about whether or not we need to have dark money and over-concentration of big money out of politics, because it does absolutely taint the process.

And what if it is a candidate that couldn’t even compete to the level that I was able to compete, then they will absolutely have no hope. And they can’t fight back, and they cannot respond. So I’m talking about this issue — yes, it pained me and my campaign. But I also want people to take a global view and take me out of this: red box, on a website, signaling to dark money how you want them —

RG: Explain to people what a red box is. You’ve run a lot of campaigns.

NT: Yeah. So if somebody is a super-PAC, they cannot directly communicate with the person they’re trying to benefit directly — and I put that in air quotes.

We know that this is a farce. It is. It’s phony, and we have to do something about dark money; we’ve got to do something about Citizens United. But in any case, the candidate in question or any candidate could put a message about how they want dark money groups to attack their opponent. In this case, in this race, it was me, but it could have been anybody. And so they take the research that they get on a candidate — and I had research on her, that’s what you do, you research your opponent, try to find the weaknesses — and her campaign, they put the messages that they wanted the dark money groups to attack me on right there in plain sight.

Now, the reason why it is legally allowed — air quotes — is because there was not direct communication.

RG: Right. It’s not a private communication.

NT: Right. So anybody — Sue from Georgia — could go on —

RG: Download that PDF and look at it.

NT: But there were a lot of breadcrumbs pointing to exactly who that campaign was signaling to.

RG: Right underneath the red box, apropos of nothing, was a quote from Mark Mellman.

NT: Yes.

RG: He has many hats!

NT: Uh huh.

RG: But they listed specifically his title as DMFI President.

NT: Right.

RG: Which is the Democratic Majority For Israel, which is the super PAC that had gone after Jamaal Bowman, had gone after Bernie Sanders.

NT: Yes. Yes.

RG: And she clearly was hoping that they would come after —

NT: And they endorsed her.

RG: Right, they had endorsed her. But they hadn’t started spending.

NT: Right. They hadn’t started spending.

RG: And it seems like some of the hesitation was they and their donors were wondering: Is this a winnable race?

NT: Yeah.

RG: Because if we’re gonna spend $4 million of donors’ money, we want to get a return for that.

NT: That’s right.

RG: Because you’ve been criticized for going up early on the air, and spending early, and then not having enough down the stretch. Was part of your calculation to try to make it seem like she couldn’t win and keep that big money out? Or was that just a miscalculation?

NT: No, it was very strategic. Also the calculus of thinking that the race would be in May. Now we did realize at a certain point, obviously, that it wasn’t gonna be me. But absolutely, it was to cement my front-runner status. And that is a tactic in politics. So anybody that’s criticizing that, you can critique hindsight being 2020. But in our shoes, at the moment, it was the right decision to make at that moment, which is: I have high-name ID in my district — matter of fact, I represented half of that district as an Ohio State Senator, so half of the 11th district was my Senate district. I have a national profile. So the strategy is to show that you are the frontrunner and that you can win, thereby trying to stop the people who want to come outside to try to help a candidate — you want to try to make them think about it.

RG: Right.

NT: That was the goal. And then the poll came out. And clearly, Ryan, had that race been in May, you would be interviewing Congresswoman Nina Turner, that’s irrefutable.

RG: Right.

NT: Polls are snapshots in time, though. And I’ve always admitted that, even when I was on Senator Sanders’ campaign, and we would be elated. Because if you’re the candidate, and the poll is in your favor, of course you’re gonna be elated. But I always wanted to temper that by saying: This is a snapshot in time and it can change at any moment. And it definitely changed.

RG: Right. And Mellman has said as much. I think he told Daniel Marans for one article that there was hesitation early on: like, we don’t think she can do it. But then, as the gap narrowed — yes. And there’s an asymmetry, because $3-$4 million is an awful lot of money to normal people; when you’re talking to billionaires —

NT: It’s a drop in the bucket.

RG: It’s: You know what? Let’s just throw a few chips on the table here and see what happens.

NT: That’s right. And also the media market in the 11th Congressional District — Ohio — compared to a New York, compared to a Los Angeles, that money can go a very long way. So it is important that people understand that the concentration of those kinds of dollars is such an affordable — by comparison to other big cities, the impact of that money.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: Something somewhat unique, I think, did happen in this race. I want to talk about that for a second, which was on May 10 Israel and Gaza erupt.

NT: Right.

Newscaster: Israeli Air Strike destroyed a high rise. Meanwhile, the rocket fire from Gaza continues.

RG: Every couple years this happens. But this time, the Squad in Congress and other progressives in Congress really stood up and criticized Israel in a way that Israel had not been criticized.

NT: They did. Congressman Pocan.

RG: He organized an entire night on the floor.

NT: Yes he did. And he actually endorsed me too. So I want to throw that out there. But yeah — go right ahead.

RG: And so it winds up right in the middle of your race polarizing this issue.

NT: That’s right.

RG: And for groups like DMFI, they have decided that the Squad is not just anti-Israel, but straight-up anti-semitic. And I think that contributed to their ability to raise money —

NT: It did.

RG: — if they had gone to war in, say, September, but the fact that they went to war right in the middle of the race, did you notice a change in the dynamics of the race around that time? Because it lasted about 11 days. But it was a hot 11 days.

NT: I did. I mean, I even have emails right now, to this day of local, primarily business leaders in the Jewish community where they were encouraging Republicans to vote in this primary, and were saying things like: We must support Shontel Brown, in no way can we let Nina Turner win this race.

Some of the Squad members are my friends, and many of them I knew before they became congresspeople, so I have a relationship with them. And I was told by a prominent Jewish businessman that: We’re coming at you with everything you got, you need to disavow the Squad. And people are hearing this first with you and me talking, Ryan, because I have not told this level of truth.

And I was told that I needed to disavow the Squad; if I didn’t do it, they were coming for me; and that also Palestinian community didn’t have rights that were more important than the State of Israel.

And what hurt me to my core is that I, again, as half of the 11th Congressional District was my Senate district, I was in service to the Jewish community, And the Jewish community is not homogeneous. I have lots of it. I still enjoy lots of Jewish support. So, I will put that out there too, I want people to know, don’t paint this the wrong way. But really hurt me is that the very persons that I got these kinds of calls from, they know me, they saw my work, we worked side by side on certain issues in Ohio. And for them to all of a sudden turn on me, the only thing I ever said throughout the campaign is: justice and equality and freedom for Israel, and the same kind of justice for Palestinians. That was it.

I was asked the BDS question. I said, “No, I don’t agree with BDS.” There are some people who do agree with the BDS movement; some people who don’t. There are some Jewish people who are OK with the BDS movement. But what I said is that any group, whether I agree with them or not — and the reason I didn’t agree with BDS is because I want to bring people together, I am known as a bridge-builder, and as much as some corporatist Dems want to strip that from me, if you look at the types of people who endorsed my campaign, from national to local, they span the entire gamut.

RG: Yeah. Locally you had a ton of mayors and like other established figures.

NT: Yeah, or not progressives, you know what, I mean?

So if you really like to look at this intellectually, side by side with any of the candidates, but especially the person that ended up being my number-one competitor, who had the most diverse set of Democrats supporting her? It was me! I had from the most progressive all the way to people who are Democrats, but they march to the beat of their own drum. And I’m speaking of my mayor, Mayor Frank G. Jackson. He is a Democrat, but he marches to the beat of his own drum. Showing that I can bring people together.

So trying to take away my agency and telling me what I have to do. And then as Dr. West often says: How can other people tell you who to love? I am a humanitarian. So of course I want justice and security for both peoples. What’s wrong with that?

Let me go back to the BDS question. So the reason why I don’t support that movement, because I want to bring people together, but they have a right to peacefully protest and make their views known.

RG: Right. But for a lot of the pro-Israel, the Israel hawks, that’s a better way to put it.

NT: Yeah. Because there is a difference.

RG: That Israel hawkish community, BDS they think ought to be illegal.

NT: That’s right. That’s exactly right.

RG: And so whether you support it or not —

NT: Yeah, because they wanted me to — and because I wouldn’t sell my soul, because I do believe in justice and security for both people — both peoples —they let me know, they were coming, and they did.

RG: I’m curious for your take on this, because you were on the ground, but I think you could separate out in some ways that the spending from DMFI PAC and the local organizing among the Israeli hawk community.

Now they fed each other.

NT: They did.

RG: And I think when DMFI saw it happening, they pumped neighborhoods full of mailers —

NT: And they also sent emails out to the Jewish community nationally, painting me as an anti-Semite, which nothing can be further from the truth.

You talk about pain and hurt: I am a conscious-minded Black woman in America. I’m a freedom fighter. I’m not perfect; nobody else is perfect. You can say a lot of things about me, but the one thing you cannot say is that I am an anti-Semite, I’m a bigot. And that hurt the most, Ryan.

So they didn’t campaign on that within the district because they knew they couldn’t win on that, but behind the scenes, that is how they were raising their money. And it made me think of the time, you remember, in 2008, when Senator Obama was the nominee for the Democrats and Senator McCain was the nominee for the Republicans, and Senator McCain was at a town hall where an older white lady got up and she was railing against then-Senator Obama. He called him a Muslim. And she said he was a terrorist.

Gayle Quinnell: I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him. And he’s not — he’s an Arab.

NT: Now, Senator McCain had two choices to make, just nod his head and go along with it. Or to speak up and speak out, even at the risk of not only alienating the lady that made the false comment, but also the audience. And you know what Senator John McCain did.

RG: I remember, yeah.

NT: He basically said: We don’t agree on much, but he’s a good man. And he’s not a terrorist.

Sen. John McCain: No, no, no, ma’am. No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with.

NT: Imagine how differently my race would have been had Ms. Brown, and/or any of the other candidates running alongside, would have said to DMFI, or anybody that was trying to paint me that way: I might not agree with her. Hey, I want to win this race as much as she wants to win this race. Nina Turner is a daughter of this community. She stands up for justice, particularly racial justice, and she’s not an anti-Semite. Imagine if Ms. Brown had that kind of integrity. But she did not.

RG: And the result at the precinct level was extraordinary. In the neighborhood of Beachwood.

NT: Yes, which was in my Senate district.

RG: So turnout overall across the district was about 17 percent.

NT: That’s right. Very low, abysmally low.

RG: But in that neighborhood, a heavily Jewish neighborhood. I believe it was 32 percent.

NT: Yes.

RG: So almost double.

NT: And the outer-ring suburban communities that were more fluent, when you compare it to the turnout and portions of Akron that represent the 11th Congressional District, and then Cleveland itself outnumbered because I won those areas. I won the working class, blacks, whites, and Hispanic community both on the east side and also the west side, which was a beautiful thing. They just didn’t turn out at the same level as the more fluent communities and also the — and you ended up losing by roughly 4,000 votes. And, by my calculation, I think in Beachwood, that kind of neighborhood alone, you lost 4,000.

NT: And, let us not forget, Republicans were encouraged to vote in this primary and they did.

RG: Right. Which is the only way you can explain that kind of uptick in turnout. And so it’s interesting, because a lot of people look for lots of different national implications to draw from the race. But the way the media analyzes these things is that if you win by one vote, then everything went right. And if you lose by one vote, everything went wrong.

NT: That’s exactly right.

RG: But if it turns out that that Beachwood neighborhood kind of flipped the race, then the question of Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal, and progressivism, don’t even —

NT: But we didn’t run it!

I mean, so any national person that’s trying to draw this kind of what I would call a lazy conclusion, it is an easy conclusion, because some in the national media want to continue to stoke this progressive against corporatist or more establishment Democrats.

What happened in the 11th Congressional District, now it was that, — there’s a however to it. Our campaign ran on the issues; the other campaign did not. Well, I’ll tell you what their issue was: Anybody but Nina. The fact that I did not show the requisite worship to the Democratic Party and also to the current administration, one of my donors, a supporter of mine who navigates the corporatist world, is not a progressive by any stretch of the imagination, but they like and respect me for what I stand for, what I’m trying to do, and they actually had conversations with Clyburn people, and he asked them: Why are you guys doing this to Nina Turner? And they told him that I was not the right kind of Democrat.

RG: Mhmm.

NT: It turns out that in a district that by over 30 points is Democrat, that a Democrat was going to win thereby, the totals in the House of Representatives will be safe, the moral of the story is Nina Turner is not the right kind of Democrat.

RG: Right. And so yeah, let’s move into talking about the right kind. One of the things you got hit for not voting for the Democratic platform.

Ad Voiceover: Turner even voted “No” on the entire Democratic platform, rejecting Biden’s plan to build on Obamacare.

RG: That was probably the weakest of all the hits because you had negotiated improvement.

NT: Yeah. We had already planned that out. So certain of us were going to not vote for it on principle because it didn’t include Medicare for All, and others were going to support it.

And then also not supporting Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general.

Ad Voiceover: Support Clinton over Trump? Not Nina Turner. Helped Biden defeat Trump? Turner refused.

RG: And then the infamous “bowl of shit” remark.

Ad Voiceover: In 2020, she trashed Joe Biden.

NT: You’ve got two bowls of shit in front of you.

Ad Voiceover: Turner said voting for Biden was like eating shit.

Ad Voiceover: Compared voting for Joe Biden to eating half a bowl of — oh, my.

RG: Which one of those hit hardest? And do you think they made a crucial difference?

NT: For the type of voter that was going to come out? Yeah. Because those voters are the “any blue will do.” And so if you’re being judged on loyalty, how loyal you are, when you lay out the variables you just laid out, it’s like: Oh, my God — Nina Turner really ain’t the right kind of Democrat. [Laughs.] You know? But I question: What is the right kind of democrat?

James Baldwin has a quote in one of my favorite books: “The Fire Next Time.” He talked about this country, and he basically said: I love this country more than any other. And because of my love, and I’m paraphrasing, I have the right to criticize it. That is how I feel about the Democratic Party. I am a Democrat.

And we actually devolved — that’s another calculation that I think we should have made, because we started to play on their turf. So they say Nina Turner is not a Democrat? Now, I gotta prove I’m a Democrat. That got me hemmed up! No, I am a Democrat! But I am a Shirley Chisholm Democrat. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm — “Unbought and unbossed.” That was her campaign slogan when she ran for president in 1972.

So they got us off our game a little bit, because here we are trying to prove how much of a Democrat I am. Democratic nominee for Secretary of State in 2014; Democratic member of the Ohio Senate; Democrat as a councilwoman; Democrat for President Obama twice to the convention. What more do you want?

RG: And given the turnout, because of the special election, it’s super concentrated into really partisan Democrats who are paying a lot of attention. Do you think it would have been different in a regular turnout?

NT: Oh, I do! Because, first of all, when you got 435 seats, as we are going to have in 2022, plus the Senate seats that are up, you can’t concentrate all that firepower on only one seat. And when you’re making a strategic calculus, as somebody that’s looking at all the Democratic seats, they’re gonna be some Democrats running and they are not running in a safe Democratic seat who are going to need that firepower to come save them. So absolutely. The turnout would have been different; we would have more college students who rock with people like me and the progressive movement. That was missing. You would have more people who are going to come out and participate.

RG: And losing in a neighborhood by 4,000 votes kills you if you only need 50,000 to win. But if you need 100,000, losing 4,000 in a neighborhood hurts less.

So are you in again, or is incumbency too much of a —? Well, I guess there’s redistricting too?

NT: Yes, redistricting is going on all over the country. And the lines will be different. And also if the person takes office, they can’t take office before November. It’d be the holidays. You know? And then it’s January, right? And February.

RG: Do you think Republicans in Ohio have a habit of working with, I think Joyce Beatty in the past — there’s been some reporting about how Beatty helped craft districts, a district that was favorable to her.

NT: I was in the legislature at the time. I voted against that map.

RG: So you remember this? And it’s not just Ohio! Missouri and other places, Republicans work with Black elected Democrats to strengthen their seats in exchange for them voting for —?

NT: Isn’t that what every incumbent wants?

RG: Yeah, a safer seat. Right.

NT: One of the reasons I wrote it against the map in 2011 is because it was not representative of the Democratic vote in Ohio, whereby 12 seats almost always were gonna go to Republicans and four seats almost always will go to a Democrat. So if you are standing up for the people, and the way people voted in the state, you got to say this is unfair.

I proudly voted against that map. But absolutely. Incumbent’s gonna incumbent. And yeah, there are many Democrats, probably most Democrats, as long as the map favors them individually, they are OK with it. That’s not partisan, there.

RG: And it’s also not racial, it’s only racial because the Voting Rights Act requires that certain minority districts.

NT: And the irony is, to that point you’re making, Ryan, is that the 11th congressional district came into existence because of the fight of the Stokes brothers. You know, Congressman Stokes, and also his brother, Mayor Stokes and was created because of the Civil Rights Act.

RG: Right.

NT: And in 2021, the majority of Blacks, for the first time in that historic district, did not decide who the leader was going to be.

RG: But so you are looking at the race, it sounds like.

NT: Oh, I’m looking at everything. Everything is on the table.

RG: One last thing on the tactical front, another thing you were hit for was the spending on, was it Devine Mulvey Longabaugh that had done a bunch of ads for Bernie in 2016? Right? So there was $400,000 for the shooting production, all that, people are saying: That’s too much. That’s spending too much on the production of these ads.

NT: I love how these people come in at the 11th hour, whoever they are. We spent the money in a very strategic way, given the information that we had at the time. That was not wildly out of what somebody would pay for, for the quality.

And I gotta tell you something: Everywhere I went, people were talking about how good those commercials were. They were impactful; I stayed on the issues; they were very well done. And so I’m not going to get into this divide and conquer between the people who were on my team, including the consultants, we were not over. It was fair, the largest expenses, you know, in study in politics and campaigns. The largest expense, other than your staffing, is commercial production.

RG: Right. I also wanted to ask you about the role of the kind of online left in the race. You raised a ton of money from small donors. So there’s obviously a grassroots

NT: Oh yeah — and they love me, and I love them. They came to my rescue every time the neoliberals came out.

RG: Yes, like Hillary Clinton endorses, $500,000 comes into you.

NT: Oh yeah, I’m like, “Please come out and endorse again, won’t you?”

RG: They were raising more money for you.

NT: But you can’t plan on that. That’s why timing is everything, and all money is not equal. I’m glad you brought that up. Because when you have a budget, my campaign manager has a budget, we got a budget based on what we have right now. And so what we mean by “all money is not the same” and the timing of the money — yes, the movement responded, and I want to thank them for that. But we couldn’t bank on that throughout. And the last thing you want to do, as a campaign manager, is to come back and tell your principal: “You’re hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt because I overspent money.” So yes, that movement came to my rescue. But we couldn’t plan the long-term on that. But I love that. I love the movement for that. That is why I was able to raise the money that I was able to raise.

RG: And so while there’s clearly that robust national grassroots online movement there, the media ecosystem has changed since 2016. Yes.

And so in 2016, and also in 2018, when the Squad was coming into Congress, for the first time, there was sort of an alliance of the online progressive ecosystem, and this grassroots donor base that was firing money at Bernie Sanders or firing money at whichever candidate was the unified, recognized avatar for the movement at the time.

Since — I’d say, and I’m curious for your take on this — Sanders’ second loss splintered off in different directions. And there wasn’t much attention from, say, the YouTube left, the shows that in the past would have been doing nightly segments about the race, which then creates a more predictable flow of money, because — you would know better — but maybe $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 each time is then pumped into the campaign. This time that organizing was elsewhere. Do you notice an effect of that? Or because there’s such a sizable national grassroots base, not really?

NT: Not really. I mean, we did have many people like Kyle Kulinski and others, TYT, some other independent people, Tim Black and others, they were there. If you’re talking about in a more concentrated robust way, maybe not?

No, we didn’t notice that because of the movement itself, they came through. Now we couldn’t predict that they were gonna come through because what motivates the base is: Oh, my god, they’re attacking her.

What we’re gonna have to do as a movement is to raise that kind of money up front in anticipation. Don’t wait until the attack comes. I just want them to know right now, if there’s a progressive running, they’re gonna be attacked. Look at India Walton, for example.

RG: Mhmm.

NT: I mean, Ryan, can I just use her as an example? She’s a democratic socialist. She won the primary! That’s a little different situation. She actually won her primary and the corporatist Democrats still decided that they were going upend the will of the people so that the incumbent doing everything he can — luckily a court just throughout an appeal — but doing everything that he can, with the help of institutional Democrats, even though India Walton is the nominee for Buffalo, New York.

So what I want the movement to take from that is that we can only respond when they start hitting the progressive candidate, we got to go into the race knowing they’re gonna hit the progressive candidate, and to give that money right away, so that whatever happens in that race, they got the arsenal already set.

So now if they don’t hit them as hard as you thought? No harm, no foul. They got money to be able to help other candidates and do the things that they need to do to make it all the way to the end. The movement needs to be a little more disciplined, and we gotta be more agile. And we cannot let the lofty issues that change humanity that we’re fighting for cloud our judgment on just how negative, how hard, the corporatist Dems will come at progressives.

We got more than enough examples: They did it to Senator Sanders, they did it to me, a lot of the Congresswomen and men now who are part of the Squad, they did it to them, too. So we don’t need any more examples.

RG: So between now and whatever you do next, I just saw recently that you joined TYT, speaking of.

NT: I did! I’m so happy to be on TYT as a guest host. They have guest hosts on various shows. You know how important it is to have independent media. And I have been a contributor for CNN and MSNBC, and certainly enjoyed my time there.

RG: I guest host occasionally for TYT. What are you going to be doing for them?

NT: Well, I’m gonna be on various shows. And I also got a little surprise coming up, that I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag right now, but I’m gonna be on there weekly, at least three days a week, weekly. So I’m really excited about the opportunity to continue to strengthen the base and encourage the base.

And one other point I want to make, Ryan, I think the attacks, what I want to say to the moment, I don’t want them to get weary. Because just as certain powers see opportunities to take what they think to take down somebody like me or somebody like Senator Sanders, who has not been taken down, he is the chairman of the Budget Committee. So what they meant for evil turned into good, and I believe that’s the same case for me whether I run again or not. And again, I got all options on the table.

But they target leaders like myself, and Senator Sanders, and others because they want the movement to get weary. They want them to say: Look at what happened to Senator Sanders — we can’t win. Look at what happened to Senator Nina Turner — if she can’t win then nobody can win. That’s what they want. Because they want people to lose hope and lose their commitment and connection to keeping up the fight for justice. So I want people to know right now that not one person is more important in this movement. Now, some of us have more influence. But that which we are fighting for is worth fighting for no matter what happens in individual elections.

Now we can’t be naive. To make the change, we need the power. And we need to continue to fight for that power to get progressives elected to all levels of government so that we can push the policies and create the conditions that are going to change people’s material lives. Albert Einstein once said that poisonous weeds and corn can grow in the same soil if the conditions are right. I believe that the conditions matter more than the soil, and that is ultimately what this movement is about, is creating better conditions.

So don’t get discouraged! You could be mad, but even in that anger, we got to strategize. You know, Michael Render, my brother, Killer Mike, he talks about planning, plotting, strategizing — I think it’s plot, plan, organize, strategize, and mobilize. And that’s what we have to do in every single situation.

RG: Well, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.

NT: Oh, it’s such a pleasure to be here with you, Ryan. You gotta have me back. I am in the studio, y’all, with the one and only Ryan Grim, baby.

RG: Right here. In the studio.

NT: I just want to thank him for his journalism and the folks at The Intercept who really dig deep, and also give us all something else to think about. Independent media is important. So please, please, please, support independent media.

RG: I endorse that. Fully. 100 percent.

NT: [Laughs.]

RG: Thank you so much.

NT: Thank you.

[End credits music.]

RG: That was Nina Turner and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

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