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By Jonathan Easley

Former Ohio state lawmaker Nina Turner has emerged as one of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s most prominent surrogates, adding another twist to a political career that has rankled the Democratic establishment at every turn.

Hardly a day goes by where the energetic Turner doesn’t appear on television, at a forum or at a rally touting Sanders’s record or defending him against criticism from rival Hillary Clinton’s campaign.


Turner is also one of several prominent African-American supporters working to help the Vermont senator make inroads with black voters, who have so far delivered huge victories to Clinton across the South and helped her build a substantial delegate lead.

Turner’s efforts are all the more surprising because she was once a Clinton supporter.

Former President Bill Clinton endorsed Turner’s 2014 run for Ohio secretary of State, and Turner worked as an unpaid volunteer for Ready for Hillary, the group that laid the groundwork for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Last November, however, Turner switched allegiances, taking a leave of absence from a paid role with the Ohio Democratic Party to be an unpaid advocate for Sanders’s campaign.

“It came down to some soul-searching,” Turner said in an interview with The Hill. “It was actually my husband who said, ‘Baby, I think you should give Sen. Sanders a look. I believe he’s your candidate, because he has the same righteous indignation you have. He stands up for people the way you like to stand up for people.’ ”

Turner said she was at first emotionally drawn to Sanders, moved by his spirit and energy on the campaign trail.

But Turner said she became sold on Sanders when she realized their policy priorities were in alignment.

Turner was raised in Cleveland by a single mother on welfare who lacked access to adequate healthcare and died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Turner was 22 at the time, but her youngest sibling was only 12.

The oldest of seven children, Turner emerged from those conditions to become the first in her family to graduate from college. Her son, a police officer in Cleveland, is now a second-generation college graduate.

Turner said universal healthcare and access to affordable higher education are two of her driving issues. She was spurred to back Sanders by his argument that healthcare is a human right and by his proposal to make college tuition at public universities free.

“It was the juxtaposition of my life and what I’ve had to endure so far and how Sen. Sanders stands up for the working poor,” Turner said.

In becoming an advocate for Sanders, Turner has completely turned her back on the Clintons.

In the interview with The Hill, Turner didn’t hold back, criticizing Bill and Hillary Clinton as overly eager to accuse Sanders of sexism.

“It’s desperate,” Turner said. “They really have some nerve.”

Last week, Sanders questioned whether Clinton was qualified to be president. Bill Clinton called the remark a case of “subconscious” sexism and said his wife is being held to a higher standard because she’s a woman.

Turner countered that if that was an example of sexism, perhaps voters should look back to Hillary Clinton’s attacks against then-Sen. Barack Obama from their 2008 primary contests.

“She intimated in the strongest way that he was unqualified. Is that racist?” Turner asked. “If they want to do the dance, let’s do the dance, because I was highly offended, as were African-Americans across this country.”

Turner also noted that Bill Clinton referred to one Black Lives Matter protester who confronted him at an event last week as “girl.”

“Was that sexist?” she asked. “Or is sexism only reserved for white women?”

And Turner rebuked Bill Clinton for getting into a heated exchange with those same Black Lives Matter protesters over the impact of the 1994 crime bill he signed into law.

“It was horrible,” she said.

“You’re treating them in a way that’s not respectful to our feelings about these issues,” she continued. “You may not agree with how we feel, but that’s the way some of us feel … that those policies [Clinton] pushed, whether the crime bill or welfare reform, had a disproportionately negative impact on the African-American community that we still have not recovered from to this day.”

Turner said the transition from Clinton supporter to Sanders surrogate has been rough at times.

As a former card-carrying member of the Democratic establishment in Ohio — in addition to working for the state party, she has served as a Cleveland city councilwoman and state senator — Turner said she’s been ostracized by some of her former colleagues.

One woman, Turner said, openly reprimanded her at a Planned Parenthood event, saying she had an obligation to help elect the first woman president.

“It was heavy; it was really heavy,” Turner recalled. “I remember folks asking me if I was sure, do you have to do this? Some had concerns about my political future. That’s how serious this was.”

But Turner said she’s not worried about having made an enemy out of one of the nation’s most powerful political dynasties.

“I’ve been in this game a long time, and I’ve accomplished a lot in this world
without the Clintons,” Turner, 48, said.

“All of the things I’ve accomplished, the Clintons were nowhere in it,” she continued. “So for me to cower in the corner and live in fear about what they may or may not do, that’s not me. My fate is controlled by the Almighty, and they are not the Almighty. They may have some influence on this Earth, but they are not the Almighty.”

It’s not the first time Turner has bucked the establishment.

In 2011, she infuriated party leaders for mulling a primary challenge to Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), though she backed down.

Before that, she was the only black politician to endorse a Cuyahoga County government restructuring bill. A newspaper in the region with predominantly black readership ran an editorial cartoon depicting Turner as Aunt Jemima.

“That was the worst public thing to happen to me,” Turner said.

And Turner’s shift from Clinton to Sanders is also not the first time she’s foregone what looked like a sure thing in favor of a long shot.

Turner passed on running for reelection in her last year of eligibility for the state senate, opting instead to challenge incumbent Republican John Husted for secretary of State.

She got trounced in what was a big year for Republicans but emerged as a favorite to run for mayor of Cleveland in 2017.

“We’ll see,” Turner said, noting that she admires current Mayor Frank Jackson (D) and won’t challenge him if he seeks a fourth term.

“I’ve got my hands really full right now, and I’m really focused right now,” she said. “I’m humbled that so many people not just in my city, not just in my state, but all across the country really want to see me back in the elected ministry. I’d love to be back there.”


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.