Nina Turner on Bernie Sanders, Running for Congress, and Progressive Power
October 2019 feels like a lifetime ago. Covid-19 didn’t exist yet. Donald Trump was president. George Floyd was alive.
And on a sunny, brisk fall day in Queens, New York, in a baseball field under a bridge across the street from the country’s biggest public housing project (Queensbridge, which birthed rap legends like Nas and Mobb Deep), a balding U.S. senator from Vermont held a rally.
Bernie Sanders had just had a heart attack earlier that month, declaring “I am back!” to the crowd of 26,000 who had turned out to hear him talk about Medicare-for-all, the 99 percent, how he could win the Democratic presidential primary, and other progressive topics of the day.
An all-star roster of national, statewide, and local New York lefty politicians got on stage to lend their support to the campaign, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, former Queens District Attorney candidate Tiffany Caban, State Senator Michael Gianaris, and former New York City Council member Rafael Espinal.
Nina Turner took the stage too.
And it was on that day, that for the first time, she uttered a spontaneous statement that has followed her since, becoming something of a personal motto.
The crowd roared back enthusiastically.
“I am a daughter of the black church,” she tells Rolling Stone. “We have what is called the call and response. When the preacher says something, you got to talk back. You don’t just sit there. And I wanted them to know: I see you, we’re together. So since I didn’t know everybody’s name, I said, ‘hello somebody.’ It just came out of nowhere, just I think from my soul, into my heart and then into my head and out my mouth.”
This wasn’t the first time Turner’s words moved a massive, excited crowd of Bernie supporters, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. As the most visible surrogate for the campaign, Turner made a name for herself stumping across the country for Bernie. And now, the former Cleveland City Council member and Ohio State Senator is running for U.S. Congress in Ohio, where she hopes to join a growing and vocal progressive squad in Washington.
Turner is vying to fill a seat vacated by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge in Ohio’s 11th Congressional district special election, with a primary to take place on August 3rd, and the general election on November 2nd. There are 13 candidates in the primary, including Cuyahoga County Councilor and mentee of Marcia Fudge Shontel Brown, and former State Senator Jeff Johnson. Nina Turner has snagged prominent endorsements, from AOC to Diddy, and has raised millions for her campaign, as this election is shaping up to be another choice for voters between establishment or progressive Democratic candidates.
For the latest installment of “The Next Wave,” Rolling Stone‘s series on the new leaders who will shape America’s future, Turner discussed local and state politics, being her authentic self in the public eye, George Floyd, and a slew of progressive policies, from Medicare-for-all to an increased minimum wage.
What was the moment that you first decided to run for Congress?
When the opportunity presented itself for my former congresswoman, who is now secretary of HUD, Marcia Fudge, to be secretary, my heart said, “This is it, you should go for this.” And it really is a culmination of all the work that I’ve been doing heretofore. Started off as a Cleveland City Councilwoman, went to the Ohio Senate, done a lot of work on a national level, primarily with Senator Bernie Sanders. And this opportunity was walking down the street. So I’m glad to be in this race.
Do you remember what the first moment was that you ever decided to run for office?
Oh, my goodness, yes, I do. I worked for the mayor of the city of Cleveland, the second African American mayor, to be exact, to be elected. And his name is Michael R. White. And he decided not to run again. But I was so entrenched in what a good public servant could do, the power of public office to really change people’s conditions. And I thought, “Wow, I should run for [office at the] local level.” It was amazing to see the things that you can impact on the local level government. Even to this day, I still believe local level government is the most important, even though it does not get the attention. Council people are not patted on the back enough for doing the hard daily work of keeping their residents lifted, whether it’s snow removal or just taking that call from a senior who’s lonely. So in 2001, I ran for the very first time for Cleveland City Council. I did not win that race. So I had to make a decision, “Are you running again?” I ended up doing it again. And I ran in 2005, took the oath of office in 2006, and actually became the first woman to serve my community in Ward One in Cleveland in Lee-Harvard. So I made a little history too.
Have you always been able to express your authentic self in politics?
No. That came over time, because there are these barriers that are put up for politicians, and I would say women, and especially black women, to tone ourselves down and not to be our true selves. And so I have had to, over time, embrace that. And I think that embrace has certainly come with more age and more confidence in one’s self. And also just getting to a point in your life where you’re just not for the foolishness. I will keep this PG. There’s another word that I want to use, but I won’t. But it’s a process to getting that kind of confidence, to be, more times than not, authentically who you are in the public space. And then the fear, you know, the fear of rejection, the fear that you’re going to be over-judged, particularly if you are a public figure, there’s an extra judgment on you on how you are supposed to comport yourself. And that bothers me a lot because my former boss, Mayor Michael R. White, used to say, “If your hair is on fire, act like your hair is on fire.”
And so when I see the challenges that people are facing in this country, particularly those who are poor or are among the working poor to barely middle class, we need to do something to help change their material conditions. And so when people don’t have enough money to pay their rent or the mortgage or they don’t have access to clean food, clean air, clean water, that’s a hair-on-fire moment. It’s not particularly the moment to be cool, calm and collected. So it has been a journey for me. I’m there. Some days is harder than others, but I think, for the most part I express my authentic self most of a time.
What are the most important things America can do right now to work towards eradicating white supremacy?
First, confess. We have to recognize that white supremacy and then anti-blackness and all the other negative “isms” are very much rooted in a patriarchal, very much white, male dominated hierarchy. And white supremacy is that stain. And it is the stain that causes most of the conundrums that we face as a nation. It is linked to a notion that if you are white and male, in particular, that your life means more than anybody else’s life. And if you’re wealthy, all of that, all of that stuff comes from white supremacy. So we got to, first of all, confess our sins. We have to have some real truth and reconciliation in this country. Not be afraid of it. Let’s go and take the good, the bad and the ugly and let’s deal with this so that we can be on a path to the change that we need to happen. I believe that from police brutality, the gunning down of unarmed black men and women in particular, and some of our other sisters and brothers get caught up in that, and then there’s a class dynamic to it, too, is really a microcosm of what America really is. And so while we must be about the business of reforming and revolutionizing policing in America, what I want my sisters and brothers to understand is that policing is a reflection of the problems of a larger society. And we cannot separate ourselves from that reflection.
How has America changed and how hasn’t it changed since the police killing of George Floyd?
Well, there are laws. The Movement for Black Lives certainly has forced some policy changes in this country. On the local level, on regional levels, and also on state levels of government, laws have been changed. And that’s a beautiful thing. They didn’t just change them because people with power woke up and said, “You know what, I need to fix that.” It was changed because of the bubbling up of the grassroots, of the masses, of the activist class getting out there and making the demand.
On the other hand, we still have a very long way to go. Far too many black men and black women are still being gunned down, unarmed, and particularly unarmed black men. And that is a problem. We are nibbling around the edges with some of these policies. We just got to come straight at it. We have to analyze the system of policing, admit that it was never designed to protect and serve the black community. It was designed to surveil, to haunt, to hunt people in the black community. And that has to change. And then beyond that, the George Floyd murder reminded me, when I was watching this police officer with just pure hatred in his eyes, at least from my perspective, continue to put his knee on George Floyd’s neck, it reminded me of lynching. White people used to gather and bring their kids and take pictures (we got the receipts) as they lynched black people. Just by the look on his face, he was not moved by this life, that he was choking out, that he killed. He killed this man. And he had absolutely no remorse about it. It is a reminder that black lives are still seen in this country as somehow less than the white lives. And it is reflected in policing, and is also reflected in our politics, it’s reflected in education, it’s reflected in the wealth gap between black and white people.
So it’s not just in the criminal and the legal system that we need to fix this. We need to fix this and every single system — socioeconomic, political, environment. Black children die at higher rates of asthma, black women still die at higher rates than our white sisters in the United States of America. Black babies still die at higher rates. And my God, if they grow up, we still fear when they walk down the street. So we have lots of work to do. George Floyd, his death is not in vain, because activists are really pushing, and his murder has shaken the entire world. Systemic problems require systemic solutions, and that is when we are going to see a transformation in this country. When politicians understand that the system itself has to be changed. And the system is not some out-there thing. I want people to understand that. People run the systems. And so we got to put people in power who actually understand that it is vitally important for the survival of all, not just the black community, but for the white community, for the brown community, for all of us to have those systems change.
Will Medicare-for-all ever be a reality in the United States, and why isn’t it now?
I believe that Medicare-for-all will absolutely be a reality in the United States of America. We will keep pushing for that just like generations before us. You know, the original concept of Medicare was supposed to be Medicare-for-all before bad politics got in the way. And so we’re bumping up against those same bad politics in the insurance industry in particular, who control members of Congress. I call them “owner donors.” The owner donors are in control. And that’s the reason why we don’t have it at the moment. But there’s a 21st century awakening about this. And we are going to get it. Not going to happen because a politician got an epiphany or two. It is going to happen because the American people are making the demand.
If you could have an hour with the senators who voted against a $15 minimum wage, what would you tell them, and where would you take them?
If I could talk to the members of Congress who denied the $15 an hour minimum wage, I would ask them to walk a mile in the shoes of people who are among the working poor. The term working and poor should not go together. But it is a concept and it is real, rooted in reality, in the United States of America. And because they themselves derive their money, their income, their health care from tax dollars of the people, and then at the same time could be as brazen and heartless. [That] would have been bad before the pandemic. Because people were suffering before then, too, but especially, especially heartless during a pandemic to deny a $15 an hour minimum wage increase. Which is the floor. It is already the compromise position. It is not the ceiling.
In what ways has Biden impressed you thus far and in what ways has he disappointed you?
President Biden has impressed me with the Covid package — $1.9 trillion certainly was a great start, from the child tax credits in there, making extra money for schools. I would also say in looking at infrastructure, that he is proposing, even though it’s not enough money — as far as I’m concerned, we need more money because, again, we’ve got systemic problems and we need systemic solutions. And part of that, the federal government is the only level of government that can bring the noise, so to speak, in terms of the money that is necessary to really, truly turn the tide. But I like the fact that that the whole notion of human capital in the care industry is wrapped into those two packages. We need that.
Disappointed about the $15 an hour minimum wage increase. Because Democrats control both chambers of the Congress and they control the presidency. So I’m still scratching my head as to why a parliamentarian who was only giving an opinion — it was not binding — could control whether or not the $15 minimum wage went through. And then also the filibuster. Don’t equivocate on the filibuster. The filibuster must go. It is a relic of racism. It was used to stop abolitionist work in the Congress. So the filibuster must go. So don’t equivocate on that.
What were your biggest lessons from the Bernie campaign trail?
That conscious-minded people can can shift things in politics. And the progressives have done that. I mean, we see more progressives than ever being elected across the country and across levels of government. And even in cases where progressives were running and they did not necessarily win the seat, we changed how politicians, especially on the Democratic side, had to talk about issues. Medicare-for-all would not still be being debated if it was not for that progressive movement. Canceling student debt, legalizing marijuana, you name it. It is because of the progressive movement that we’re having real robust debate about the type of country we want to be, about the type of country that we should be.
Another lesson that I learned that it is really hard to beat the status quo. That when you are trying to change systems in the way that our campaign was trying to do, that the status quo is not just going to let you do that. And that it will mount, it will unite, to try to stop you. And I think people who are on a justice journey have to always keep that in mind.
Will Democrats ever be as united in left-wing stances as Republicans are in right-wing ones, to be able to wield their supposed political power to enact major progressive policy changes?
Yes, I mean, the nation is there. When we look at the things that people really care about now, again, especially because of the pandemic, it is healthcare. It is increasing the minimum wage. It is canceling student debt. When I started this journey with Senator Sanders in the latter part of 2015, people thought “They’re crazy. Why are they talking about this stuff? This doesn’t make sense.” And you fast forward to 2021, and those subjects, those issues are what animate people’s lives every single day.
So just as the Republicans are determined to wreak havoc, especially those on the federal level, the Democratic Party, because we asked the American people to give us the presidency. Check. Give us the Senate by way of Georgia. Check. Help us keep the majority in the House of Representatives. Check. So we got check, check and check. Now we must go ham. Ham on behalf of the American people. Power is made to be used. You can’t squander it. You got to use it. And do I think there is some value in trying to bring people along? Yes, I do. Dr. Maya Angelou once said that when people show you who they are, you ought to believe them. And the Republicans time and time again, especially on the federal level, have shown us who they really are. So let’s not be confused. There’s no confusion. And the Democrats should use that power that was given to us by the people to change their material conditions, and not to apologize.