Nina Turner: Reflections on the political revolution’s past and future

"If I decide to take on a cause, take on an issue, I'm ride or die," Turner told Salon

By Daniel Denvir
September 8, 2016 9:01PM (UTC)
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Nina Turner (AP/Mark Duncan)

Though roughly 45 percent of Democratic primary voters supported Bernie Sanders, fewer than a dozen members of Congress, including one senator, did the same. This was a textbook setback. But it also played in the campaign’s favor, crystalizing the gaping divide between a restive base and establishment officialdom that was at the heart of Sanders’ insurgent appeal. Sanders’ surrogates were an unconventional bunch, ranging from actress Rosario Dawson to rapper Killer Mike, who spoke up for the political revolution in blunt and unscripted terms. If Hillary Clinton’s celebrity surrogates imparted an Oscars-like ambience to the Democratic National Convention, Sanders’ spoke as if they were standing atop the barricades.

Nina Turner, a former state senator from Ohio, had been prominent in state politics but less known on the national scene when she emerged as one of Sanders’ most high-profile, outspoken and eloquent advocates. Turner grew up poor in Cleveland and traversed the country and appeared on cable news shows making the case for a transformational politics against corporate rule that resonated with her life story.


At the Democratic National Convention, Turner was expected to give a speech seconding Sanders’ nomination. But her speech was blocked at the last minute, apparently by the Clinton camp. It’s unclear why. Turner, however, had declined to endorse the nominee — and still hasn’t. Salon spoke to Turner about her reflections on the Sanders campaign, the future of left politics in the United States and about her future as a candidate. Turner recently joined the board of the Sanders organization Our Revolution and is eyeing Ohio's 2018 elections, including the race for governor. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You went from being a state-level politician to one of the most recognizable public faces of a presidential campaign that was way more successful than almost anyone could've imagined.

I talked about how the cause was right and the time was now, and that was not just campaign speech rhetoric for me. As [Sanders] always said, people are no longer going to tolerate establishment politics. I felt that way in my heart, in my soul and in my head. And so to be able to push and to promote a man that has heart-soul agreement in that way was a beautiful thing.


Initially, you had endorsed Hillary Clinton but became one of the very early politicians, and a black politician at that, to endorse Sanders. What made you switch?

Well, not endorse. I'd come off of a very hard secretary of state's race in Ohio and I was approached by some Ready for Hillary folks, and asked would I mind helping the group try to convince the Secretary to run. And like a good Democrat I said, "No, I don't have a problem at all.”

At that time there was no other Democrat in the race. It really was my husband who brought to my attention in a deeper way Sen. Bernie Sanders. And he just said, "Baby, I think you might want to take a look at this, this candidate right now who just got in this race. He has the same righteous indignation as you do."


I started to study him a little more, from what he did when he was in his early 20s to what he's been fighting for for the last 40 or 50 years. It just touched my heart.

I hadn't felt that way, even for President Barack Obama. I supported Sen. Obama from the beginning, but it was a different kind of feeling that I got after researching Sen. Bernie Sanders. And I couldn't deny it, couldn't get away from it. It kept me up at night.


It seems like that's in part because you were — we were all — hearing from Sanders things that no one had really ever heard from a major party presidential candidate before.

That's right. I mean, who talks about the poor? Nobody talks about the poor. Everybody talks about the middle class and just kinda want to ignore that the poor exist. And you cannot ignore that they exist if you want to help them.

And so this man talked about the poor, he talked about universal health care. He didn’t mince words about how Wall Street is not going to continue to run this country. We're going to do something about Citizens United. We're going to take on these big corporate interests head on. Yes, a living wage, $15 an hour.


I grew up in a poor family. My parents got married very young and it didn't work out, so I lived the majority of my life in a single-parent household. My mother died at the age of 42 years old, aneurysm burst in her brain and she didn't have any money. She didn't have a life insurance policy. She didn't have any money in the bank. And she died on the system of welfare. I'm the oldest of seven children. I was 22 when my mother died; my baby sister was 12. We had nothing. We had each other, but we had nothing. We had no money. We had no safety net.

And thinking about this journey of mine, and what Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont, this democratic socialist, is saying about the greatest country on the face of the earth — that this country has the capacity and all the resources necessary to level the playing field.

One of the things that seemed so different is instead of the typical kind of prattle about American exceptionalism that you hear from politicians from both parties, he was talking about the exceptional problems that this country has and dared to compare us unfavorably to some other countries. 


That's right. How dare he! You know, and that really caused the Democratic establishment to lose its ever-loving mind.

The majority of Americans on those issues that have been polled — about universal health care, about protecting Social Security and not just protecting it but making sure that it is strong — if you just ask them those questions, the overwhelming majority agreed with Sen. Sanders. So the Democratic establishment had to find a way to paint this man a bit. A man that voted over 98 percent of the time with Democrats, a man that they gave the chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee — all of a sudden is an extremist.

All of a sudden you hear the word socialist. That means a different thing to the baby boomer generation than it does even, I think, to Generation Xers. And then, also, the millennials, it had a different connotation. But if you can amp up the baby boomers who turn out in larger numbers than millennials, then you can try to paint this man as a radical and an extremist. And the Democrats tried very hard to do that. And we know that it did work among the older generation. It did not work among the millennials.

In November, when you made the endorsement, the size of Sanders' fundraising and rallies were getting a lot of attention. But he was still viewed by much of the political and media establishment as a bit of an oddball curiosity. What were your expectations of what might be possible at that time in November and how did they change?


Oh, yeah, an oddball curiosity. I am the type of person that, you know, I'm gonna get the work done. If I decide to take on a cause, take on an issue, I'm ride or die. We continued to surprise the pundits and America one state at a time. Here it is, a democratic socialist bringing in crowds that nobody has ever seen and these crowds have millennials in them, the people who will inherit the mantle. I started saying, "Oh, my God. This really is a political revolution."

So it didn't quite hit me until we got into March and April and May and June, and the crowds continued to build and this man is raising this money. He is $27 an average donation. What presidential candidate in their right mind would dare to test out a theory while running for president? He had no idea that this theory was gonna work. But he just said, You know what, I'm not going to take big donations from millionaires and billionaires. I'm gonna do this one grassroots dollar at a time.

And he did show this nation that it is possible to say something and do it at the same time. He would say, I’m going do something very radical: I am going to tell the truth as a politician. And that's what this man did. So he upset the entire political establishment by doing that.

I know that the other side wanted to paint him as an idealist. I think [former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] said she's a pragmatic progressive or progressive who can get something done. That was a slap at Sen. Sanders because he's putting all these things out there that can never be accomplished. But I don't know of people who want leaders who don't think big. Who don't dream big? Who don't push big?


Sen. Sanders understood fully that even if he were to become the president of the United States of America that he could not pull these things out of his hat, that he did not have a magic wand. And that is why the political revolution was so important because what he was saying to people all along the journey is that you gotta take this thing over — that we have to make sure that we shake up the foundation of politics in America and I can't do that by myself. I need you.

So if the Congress doesn't want to respond, I need you. Matter of fact, not only do I need you to shake up the Congress; we gotta create a new Congress. We gotta get new folks elected and that's what I'm going to do as president. I'm gonna put my sweat equity into getting the type of Congress that is necessary so that all of my big ideas can become a reality.

During the campaign, Clinton supporters and some pundits became very devoted to a certain line about why black voters, especially older black voters, were backing Clinton in large numbers. And the idea was that an economic populist agenda could only attract white support. 

It was easy. African-Americans have always been treated like a monolith in this country, 'cause it's easy. And in some ways based on the way that we voted, if you look at the numbers with the exception of the younger voter, maybe in some ways that strategy works. Maybe they were right.


The issues that he was fighting for — registering people at the age of 18, increasing the minimum wage to $15 — the overwhelming majority of blacks in terms of the income and wealth, we're at the bottom, the dead bottom. And then the majority of our households are still run by single mothers who work the types of jobs that don't allow them to make ends meet, that will allow them to support their children.

The Clintons enjoy, and this is not a slight to them, but they have enjoyed since the ’90s, you know, a longstanding relationship — and I put that in air quotes — with the African-American community. And a lot of politics is rooted by the relationship or perceived relationship. So in that way they had decades worth of head start over a democratic socialist who's 74, from a very small state that is not diverse. So he was fighting against all the odds.

But groups did pop up like Black Men for Bernie. I talked to countless African-American folks on the trail who wanted me to know; we're here and we do support Sen. Bernie Sanders and here are the reasons why. I remember when I first got a chance to talk to the leader of Black Men for Bernie. They took me outside and in front of one of the buses and they pointed to the picture of the 21-year-old Bernie Sanders being pulled by police officers for standing up against racism and discrimination at the University of Chicago.

They said, that's his street cred. And countless other African-Americans across this country felt the same way. Definitely not in the same numbers of a certain age. But the Clintons had a decades old head start on Sen. Bernie Sanders when it came to that speaking the language of the African-American community.

And Sanders did do very well with younger black voters and younger voters of color in general, which did not get as much attention as it deserved.

No, 'cause they didn't fit the narrative. And I would argue that if millennials — picture a world where only the millennials could have voted in the Democratic primary — Sen. Sanders would have been the Democratic nominee hands down because he beat both the secretary and Mr. Trump overwhelmingly with the millennials.

And the millennials aren't just the youngest voting generation. They're the most diverse.

They are the most diverse. The millennial generation attached themselves to the vision of Sen. Bernie Sanders. That vision that says you are saddled with trillion dollars' worth of debt, those of you who have gone to college, and it's not right. A vision that says that, Oh, yeah, morally we're gonna have universal health care in this country; we gonna take it to the big pharmaceutical companies; we gonna do that. A vision that says that Citizens United is wrong, that more money should not give you more speech in this country. A vision that says that we are going to address the violences against black and brown folks — political, economic environmental, legal.

The very generation who will get the baton next is the generation that saw merit in this man's vision, the type of world that they want to inherit themselves, and also the type of world once they get a little older that they want to give to the generation after them. There is something powerful about that.

And that was millennials across the ethnic spectrum. But it was also millennial women. Imagine that. Millennial women saying, Oh, no, Sen. Bernie Sanders is our candidate. It wasn't even close.

To turn to a less cheerful subject: You were supposed to give a speech seconding Sanders' nomination at the DNC and that didn't happen. A lot of people were very upset about that. Who stopped you from speaking and why? What happened?

Well, I don't know exactly the who. I'll leave that to your speculations. Let's just say it wasn't Bernie Sanders.

I got a call from Sen. Sanders that Tuesday morning, the day of the nominating process. And the senator said to me, "I want you and Congresswoman Tulsi to put my name in nomination." Of course, I was elated. I did not find out that it wasn't going to happen until I arrived at the arena. I knew when I got there, things were not going according to plan, that something wasn't quite right.

When I got there and, you know, I wasn't being escorted to the stage, none of those kinds of things were happening. I didn't get the call about what are you going to say in the two minutes? I knew something wasn't quite right and the senator called me up to his loge and he told me.

I got a chance to talk to the senator with all the emotion that, I'm sure, that you can imagine. He just hugged me. I can't share everything that we talked about, but let's just say that was a hard moment for me. And the senator had given the Clintons and the DNC everything that they asked for and he should have been able to choose the people that he wanted to put his name into nomination without fail and that did not happen.

And I am most appreciative though of the people who came to my aid, the Berners, the Berniecrats, the people who respect my work across this country who came to my aid, the stickers that were created “I’m with Nina.” Oh, my God! You know, “I’m with Nina” — people taping that over their mouths. I could never dream in a million years that people would come to my aid in that way. But I think that is a great testimony to my work.

Had they been politically astute enough, instead of just thinking about how we can hurt her, what it would have shown is true unity. Get Turner up there and she gives this two minutes, and it would have gave the Berniecrats more hope and more to believe in. It might've even swayed some of them to come over a little bit more.

'Cause let us not forget that just on that Monday the email breach had been exposed. So Berniecrats were not in a very good mood that week. First of all, they weren't in a good mood coming there in the first place. And then for it to be revealed that everything that they knew to be true or believed to be true was actually true.

Why was it that you were singled out as a target? What was it about what you said or how you said it and what you did that that made you a target of the Clinton operation?

I'm really not sure. I don't know. But it is obvious that I was the target, right? All of us were fierce advocates for our candidate, just as her surrogates were fierce advocates for her. Now, some people say that I was the fiercest, and maybe that's true. Just the irony — I want you to picture this: Within that same space they're giving a salute to black women, and they bring out all these mothers of the movement. At that same time they're trying to put another black woman in her place, put me in my place.  'Cause make no mistake about it; that symbolically was putting me in my place.

The black woman vote is the vote that they need. It was really the black woman vote in the South that gave her the huge advantages over Sen. Sanders in the South. So just the irony. To have all these speakers come up like Cecile Richards talking about how Secretary Clinton is going to give women voice. And then you take another woman, who is a Democrat in good standing, who supported another Democrat, and you gonna put her in her place — the black woman, I want to emphasize, black woman, in her place.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein offered you a spot as a running mate, which you turned down because you want to keep fighting within the Democratic Party. Why is that a struggle worth waging?

I have history with this party. This party has a varied history as well — and certainly in this country's history was not the party that we are today. This party was the party of the slave owner; it was the Dixiecrat party. We changed over time.

The values that say that we are gonna fight for voting rights in this country regardless of what party affiliation. We are the party that's gonna fight for Social Security. And we are the party that's gonna fight to increase the minimum wage in this country. We are the party that was gonna restore the Voting Rights Act. All of those things, all of the reasons why I am a Democrat — that stuck with me. And so I believe that there has to be dedicated dissenters within this party and I am the ultimate dedicated dissenter.

I think the party is worth fighting for. I believe that the Democratic Party is worth fighting for.

A lot of Bernie supporters are understandably disappointed, but I think you could kinda flip that on its head pretty easily and say what Bernie showed is that progressives really have a strong shot in the not too distant future to take things over.

That's right. And that's what our, the whole notion of Our Revolution is about. It really is a continuation of what he started when he ran for president.

Speaking of Our Revolution, there's been a bit of controversy recently as there's been staff resignations over issues with Jeff Weaver taking over and maybe other things that haven't been reported. Should supporters be worried that at least this part of the revolution is getting off to a troubled start?

No, they shouldn't be worried. Any new venture, you gonna have some bumps in the road. It's called life and it's called dealing with human beings. I don't want to question people's commitment to the revolution. Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders are still upset. They're still hurt, and so I get it. They were not prepared for the senator to endorse the secretary, although they should have been.

He said it all along, so nobody should be surprised. He said I'm going to support the Democratic nominee. And he also said, I'm going to do everything in my power to defeat Donald Trump. It's bumps in the road for a new organization, personality clashes; that's all this was. Jeff Weaver has been with Sen. Sanders since he was 18 years old. Sen. Sanders trusts this man. He hired him to run his campaign. There is a relationship there that is unshakable. So if the Sen. and Dr. [Jane] Sanders believe in Jeff Weaver and his leadership, then that's it.

People who are concerned should not let that concern cloud them or stop them from continuing this righteous fight for all of the reasons that they believed in Sen. Sanders in the first place and his platform. None of that has changed. Now, two people don't always have to agree. So there may be some disagreement about who should lead it. But this organizational part of Our Revolution is the senator's. But the revolution itself belongs to all of us. So people need to continue to take up that mantle and not get caught up in that personality clash that just happened. I believe Our Revolution is going to be very, very successful.

More generally, where does the movement go from here? The leftist politics that prevail amongst young people suggest that the left has a very bright future in the U.S. But demographics are not destiny. How are you thinking about this election and beyond?

It is organize: We have to organize and we have to organize and then once we've organized, organize again and then once we organize again, organize yet again. We gotta organize and we have to continue to pursue those policy positions that are important to us as a group.

So election reform, not just in voting, but also in terms of how people donate. We have to start to run people and elect people from dogcatcher to the president who hold those same progressive values. Bill McKibben said on the night that he did the Our Revolution launch that we have to elect champions, not just people who vote the right way, but champions.

Dare I give the Tea Party as an example? But I will. You know the Tea Partiers were able to change establishment Republicans — now in a way that I think has swung the pendulum too far to the right. But they were able to challenge the establishment in a way that made the electoral difference. In that way progressives are gonna have to do the same thing to Democrats. So we are gonna have to challenge the establishment in a way to get us an electoral change so that we are electing champions and not just people who wanna vote the right way.

Speaking of electing champions: What's next for you?

I don't know, Daniel. I get that question all the time. In terms of me being back in the elected space, I'm not sure. A lot of people want to see me do lots of things. I may run for statewide office again in 2018. Who knows? Maybe even governor; 2018 is wide open.

Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a writer at Salon covering criminal justice, policing, education, inequality and politics. You can follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.

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