- Interview by
- Eric Blanc
Before becoming the national cochair of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, Nina Turner was a Cleveland city councillor (2006–8) and an Ohio state senator (2008–14). Now she is running for Ohio’s 11th congressional district seat in a primary election slated for May 2021.
Jacobin’s Eric Blanc spoke to Turner about why she is running for national office and about her vision for winning the changes needed by working people.
What are the challenges you anticipate facing in your race to win Ohio’s 11th congressional district?
Unfortunately, voter turnout will probably be low — this is a special election so it can be a challenge to let people know that an election is going on. Even in the 2020 presidential election turnout was abysmal, especially in the Cleveland area, and it breaks my heart. So we have to awaken the sleeping giant.
Another big challenge, of course, is money in politics, especially dark money. I am grateful to have the support of thousands of people across the country who donate what they can. Our average donation is $27. However, as the progressive in this race, in many ways I’m the underdog because I’ve been bumping up against the system for years — and that system is going to bump back at me.
But I am hopeful that we’ll win. With our message of building an America as good as its promise, a message about changing the material lives of working people, and with all of the support I am getting within my district and state and across the country, I think progressives see this as their race, also. They know that when I win, I am taking with me not only the voters of my district and people of the great state of Ohio, but also the progressive movement to the halls of Congress.
Bernie’s loss in 2020 was heartbreaking for so many people across the country, myself included. What lessons from the campaign, positive and negative, do you think we should draw moving ahead?
I too was heartbroken, so I can relate to how Berniecrats across the country felt. 2016 really primed the pump for 2020 because of the issues we were fighting for and the progressive policy agenda that we set.
During this election and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our agenda became more popular. The people were even more ready to hear it this time around. The entire 2020 campaign cycle was animated by our agenda. Every single debate, they had to discuss something that our movement put out there, because our ideas were increasingly popular.
Though Senator Sanders didn’t win the presidency, the work done in 2016 and then in 2020 changed the game for the progressive movement. When we talk about a minimum wage increase, Medicare for All, canceling student debt, College for All, the Green New Deal, you name it — all of that bubbled up into the mainstream of American politics for the first time. That’s the positive.
As far as the negative lessons learned in 2020, number one, the progressive movement has to be more of a unified force — and we need to be able to coalesce quickly. We saw that the status-quo, neoliberal forces came together quickly to get the outcome that they wanted. Our side needs to be able to do the same thing.
Number two, good ideas are not enough — we need to marry our ideas to power. We have to win. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr has a great quote about this: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
Sometimes in the progressive movement, we believe that good ideas are enough, because our policies are the ones that will change people’s lives for the better. The reality is that we need to build a lot more power. And that’s not just in the electoral arena: that bubbling up at the grassroots matters — organizing matters.
Yes, there are a lot of very good things in the bill. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars that are going to help working people. That’s a big deal. It’s got money in there for local and state governments (which will help protect our public schools and other services), survival checks are in there, COVID relief money is in there, I could go on. The bill helps show that poverty is a political decision in this country — it doesn’t have to be this way. Things can be changed for the better.
Those are the positives. But Democrats also lost a golden opportunity: the $15 dollar an hour minimum wage increase should have been in there too. The minimum wage in this country has not been increased for twelve years. It’s just not enough to survive on or to be able to take care of your family. So I have a lot of gratitude for those members of the House of Representatives who fou ght like hell to keep the minimum wage hike in there, so that the House did send over a bill to the Senate that included the $15 minimum wage.
And I applaud Senator Sanders for forcing the vote in the Senate. Now we know whose side a lot of these people are on. Everything is now out in the open about how far we have to go and who are the impediments standing in the way. The indifference of some members of both parties toward the immense suffering of work-a-day people is rotten and it’s immoral. It can really bring tears to your eyes.
It also seems unconscionable that the Democratic establishment is still opposing Medicare for All in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Earlier in the year, there was a big debate over how to win Medicare for All. Could you give our readers your view on the best approach moving forward?
We have to continue to organize so that the United States is no longer the only industrialized nation on the face of the earth without universal health care. I understand people’s frustration — it is heartless that we don’t already have this. It is especially heartless in the face of a pandemic — a pandemic in which twelve million people lost their health care tied to their lost jobs — that the power brokers, be they Democrat or Republican, are still unwilling to say that it’s time for a change, despite all this suffering.
Our country now has almost a hundred million people who are either uninsured or underinsured. That’s why we’re organizing for Medicare for All all over the country with groups like National Nurse United and others. We have been organizing for a very long time — and we are going to see our labor bear fruit. Every virtual town hall, every conversation, every mailer, all that the confluence of social movement energy is going toward this one goal — and the dam is going to break.
On health care, we often point to Canada. I was watching an interview the other day where the interviewee pointed out that their universal health care system started in a particular province of their country, Saskatchewan. When we look today at Canada’s national system, it’s easy to forget that it had to start somewhere. So one important tactic, as we continue to fight for Medicare for All on a federal level, is to continue to advance on the state level and to find those kinds of wins where we can. There’s a big push in California right now to pass a universal single-payer system — and if California does something like that, it will spark things off all over the country.
On the federal level, we as a movement need to continue to elect progressive champions who are not going to back off on this demand, so that we can have the additional firepower that we need in Congress to push this through. In terms of my candidacy, everybody knows that I am an unabashed, will-not-relent, Medicare for All champion.
How do you see your campaign as contributing to the fight for racial justice today?
The policies I am championing will disproportionately help the black community. Take Medicare for All: it won’t end all the racial disparities within the health care system, but it will give black people a fighting chance. Many black people who are uninsured or underinsured can’t afford to go to the doctor, which exacerbates health disparities. We know that COVID has shown us that black people are dying at higher rates and are being hospitalized at higher rates.
So the fight for Medicare for All is a racial justice issue. My advocacy for increasing the minimum wage is a racial justice issue. My fight for canceling student debt is a racial justice issue — black women hold the greatest amount of student debt in this country! And the Green New Deal is a racial justice issue.
That’s also why I’m very much in support of the PRO Act, which would help us rebuild strong labor unions across the country, and why I stand in solidarity with the struggle of our sisters and brothers to unionize in Alabama — a movement that is being led by black women. We need to continue our outpouring of solidarity with that struggle. The union movement and the Civil Rights Movement historically have moved in tandem — there’s an intersection between them. In the twenty-first century, the same is true.
My presence in this race, and the justice platform that I’ve always fought for, cements the fact that electing me as the next congressperson for Ohio’s 11th district will mean positive, structural, material change for the people that I hope again to serve in an elected capacity. Electing me will provide one more power lever in Congress to win a progressive agenda, an agenda of opportunity for working people of all backgrounds. And it will have a disproportionately positive impact on African Americans in particular.
What do you think should be done to improve public education? And can you speak in particular to the question of charter schools?
I’m a product of public schools, I’ve gone to them all of my life and I believe in them. That’s why I was very proud to have been part of supporting the Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education that the [2020 Sanders] campaign put forward and on which Dr Heather Gautney was the lead. The policies in that plan would positively transform public education for all educators and students across the country, and I am going to continue to fight for them.
Winning this fight means ensuring that the starting base salary for every educator is $60,000. Teachers have the future in their hands — their profession should be as respected as doctors and lawyers.
This also means getting the federal government to invest more in public schools, so that schools don’t have to rely on local income taxes, resulting in very unequal school funding. It shouldn’t matter what zip code a student comes from or what their parents have or don’t have. Every student, for example, needs to have access to the internet and the latest digital tools. So many students are failing behind, especially during this pandemic, because the system is failing them. We have to invest in their futures and our collective future.
In terms of charters, these were started as a way to experiment with different education models to see what worked and what could then be scaled up. But we know that, over time, that process got out of hand and private actors who do not have the best interests of children or educators in mind got a hold of that system. That’s certainly what happened in my state of Ohio.
The government needs to not only hold charters accountable, but we need to prioritize reinvesting in our traditional public schools, which don’t get to pick and choose who they educate — they educate everyone. It’s only though that kind of reinvestment that we can finally build the schools that our students, and our educators, deserve.
Bernie and the members of the “Squad” argue that we should fight to transform the Democratic Party into a working-class party. On the other hand, some critics say we should immediately, or down the road, break away and form a third party. What do you think?
I think it’s a “both and.” What we learned in the campaign of Senator Sanders is that there are a lot of people who supported him not because he was running as a Democrat, but because of the policy agenda and the vision that he has for America. There’s a large and growing number of voters who identify as independents because they see the failure of the two-party system, where both parties represent corporatist interests more than they represent the interests of Ms Jackson down the street.
Faced with that, there are people like me who want to stay within the Democratic Party and push it to the left, to make it respond to ordinary people and not just those in the party’s apparatus or its funders. Why should we allow the corporatists and neoliberals to push us out? It is my sincere hope that, if activists continue to fight, this Democratic Party can become a party that answers to working people, a party that can implement an Economic Bill of Rights in the twenty-first century.
There are also people who don’t think that the Democratic Party can be transformed, and they have a right to put their hands to the work they see is right. As I see it, these movements are not mutually exclusive. I think they need each other. When you peel back the layers, both are really about changing the system that is rigged against working people. Some of us are working on changing the system from the inside, and some are working on changing it from outside. What brings us all together, what unifies us, are the policies that will change the material conditions of working people.
What would you say to those Bernie supporters across the country who’ve given up hope that things can change for the better?
I’d say they should look to history, so that they can gather inspiration from past movements that spent decades bumping up against the system before they eventually won. There’s a quote that I really love [from Nelson Henderson]: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
It is a very human feeling to be discouraged and to want to throw up your hands. Once you’ve gone through the stages of grief for our loss in 2020, you’ve got to shake out of it and get back on mission. Hope is an action word. It means that we are going to push for justice no matter how hard it may seem.