It’s rare that a special election in August carries as much weight as Tuesday’s race in Ohio pitting Nina Turner, a hero to progressives and a fierce promoter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal, against Shontel Brown, a local office holder with an undistinguished record but with the firepower of the Congressional Black Caucus behind her, along with the endorsement of Hillary Clinton and other national Democrats.
Turner entered the race as the frontrunner who, if she won, could affect the delicate balance among congressional Democrats and its two wings. She speaks her mind sometimes in offensive language and she readily turns her fury on Democrats who don’t embrace her wing of the party. A furious backlash sparked by the CBC put an end to Turner’s aspirations.
Brown won with 50.4 percent of the vote to Turner’s 44 percent. Turner’s potential win had sounded alarm bells for the Biden agenda and for the ability of the Democratic Party to maintain the unity needed to squeeze legislation out of a closely divided Congress. Mainstream Democrats anchored by the CBC went into action to thwart Turner and promote Brown, a member of the Cuyahoga County Council whose public service the Cleveland Plain Dealer described as “pleasant but undistinguished” in its endorsement of Turner.
The 11th District in Ohio is a safe Democratic seat, and Brown will fill the seat vacated by Marcia Fudge, who resigned to join the Biden Cabinet as housing secretary. The race laid bare the ideological differences within the party and within the Congressional Black Caucus, but Brown’s win should underscore for progressives that once again, when put to the test, the revolution is not yet here, the Midwest is not a Bernie stronghold, and Democrats not living on either coast tend to be more Biden traditionalists.
In another Ohio district, the 15th, the Trump-endorsed candidate, coal lobbyist Mike Carey, dominated a crowded field in a low-turnout special election to replace GOP Rep. Steve Stivers, who left the seat to join the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. Carey caught former President Donald Trump’s eye, and he showcased him at an Ohio rally last month and did some “tele-rallies” with him, glorified conference calls, enough along with some money from a Trump-aligned super PAC to boost Carey above the crowd and give Trump bragging rights.
The seat contested by Turner and Brown was once held by the late Rep. Lou Stokes, the first African American elected to Congress from Ohio. He served 15 terms, 30 years, in the House representing the East Side of Cleveland and was a founding member of the CBC, now in its 50th year. The belief that Turner disrespected mainstream Democrats, including Black Democrats, drew CBC leaders into Cleveland the weekend before the election to campaign for Brown.
It was a rescue effort, and it worked. Brown had closed much of the gap with Turner, but she was still lagging. An internal poll released by the Turner campaign in early June had Turner 35 points ahead. Brown was mentored by Rep. Fudge, whose mother cut a television ad saying, “Marcia can’t endorse” in this race, “but I can.” CBC Chair and Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty recalled Turner’s grossly graphic remark that voting for Joe Biden is like eating a bowl of excrement, “and she didn’t say crap,” Beatty added. Rep. Jim Clyburn made the point that as the House Democratic whip, he’s in charge of counting votes, and he knew he could count on Brown. With only a handful of votes as their margin in the House, it’s not surprising mainstream Democrats preferred Brown, who campaigned as someone who would go to Washington as a “governing partner” with Biden.
This was a contest that Turner could have won. She entered the race in December and became an instant frontrunner in the district where she was known as a mainstream Democrat before aligning herself with Sanders as a firebrand. As a state senator with the Democrats in the minority, she made a name for herself working across the aisle and with Gov. John Kasich on policing issues. The Plain Dealer recounted this record in its endorsement of Turner, saying, “That Nina Turner was practical, not ideological. That same Nina Turner needs to show up in Congress, to move more to the center where her constituents are, to be pragmatic on achieving her goals.”
Turner, 53, is infinitely more qualified and seasoned in policy and politics than Brown, who is 46. Quentin James, president of The Collective PAC, which supports Black candidates, gave $5,000 to each candidate and was “wishing them both the best,” he told The Daily Beast. He worked with Turner when she was one of the top surrogates for the Ready for Hillary PAC, and when she ran for secretary of state in Ohio in 2014, gaining a national profile as a rising star, then becoming state senator. “The point is she has a long legacy here in Cleveland, and what’s helping her in this race is people remembering that Nina and not the Nina of the Bernie Sanders variety.”
In an interview before the results were known, James said he considers himself a progressive and shares their goals, “but to get those things done, you have to have power. Replacing Democrats with more vocal Democrats in safe blue seats is not winning. To win on these big policy issues, you have to have power. And to make real change, you have to make friends. Politics is about addition, and it’s about subtraction when you piss off people, people like Black politicians. It’s very tough to label members of the CBC as corporatists who are out of touch when being Black in this country, you wake up being a progressive. You may disagree with Jim Clyburn, but to question his commitment to Black people is a big stretch.”
Turner stood by seeming to agree at a late June rally when the rapper Killer Mike said Clyburn was “stupid for not cutting a deal with Biden for his endorsement.” He mocked Clyburn for allegedly settling for Juneteenth as a federal holiday after delivering the presidency to Biden. Being called stupid by a rapper touting Turner is what drew Clyburn into the race. “I personally got involved… when I was invited by the Turner campaign,” Clyburn told The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. “[They] talked about my stupidity for endorsing Joe Biden, and I just kind of decided if I’m going to be stupid, might as well be stupid.”