Can Nina Turner become the first African-American Democrat to win statewide office in Ohio?

Great Black Hope 

Can Nina Turner become the first African-American Democrat to win statewide office in Ohio?

For a so-called fifty-fifty state, you'd think Democrats would have more luck running for statewide office in Ohio. Instead, it's as though their campaigns have been game planned by the Washington Generals for the last quarter century.

State Democrats' electoral troubles are truly biblical – as in Matthew 22:14: many are called but few chosen. They've rotated through candidates like members of Menudo with even less post-'80s success.

Cleveland State Senator Nina Turner represents one of the Democrats' best shots at reversing this tradition of futility, as she weighs a presumed run for Secretary of State.

She's already beat the odds once.

Turner's the oldest of seven children raised by a single mother, who died suddenly at the age of 42 of a brain aneurysm. There was no life insurance. Much of Turner's childhood was spent on welfare. Since she was 14, she'd worked to help earn for the family. She resolved at that point to complete her education, getting a bachelors and masters in history from Cleveland State University, making her a first-generation college grad.

"My mother said to me one day, even though she wasn't a college graduate, she says, 'You are so sweet. You got to go back to college.' Shortly after that she passed," Turner says over lunch at the Carnegie Kitchen. "It made me want to become a cycle-breaker, and as a cycle-breaker, I feel it's my moral obligation to create more cycle-breakers."

If you forgive the jargon-ese for a minute, you can begin to see the formations of the strict backbone and deep empathy that has made Turner a liberal media darling and a liberal that conservatives love to bash.

And with an eye toward a statewide seat, a cycle-breaker is exactly what the Democrats need after woeful performances in recent elections and an 0-for record with African-Americans on those tickets.

The party would love for Turner to work that magic again, but like most politics, it's easier said than done.

The Guys Who Couldn't Shoot Straight

Just once in the last two decades have Democrats enjoyed significant success running for statewide office. That was the hardly indicative 2006 election when they benefited from the coattails of an off-year national Democratic landslide and a local Republican corruption scandal. That luck soon receded as they were swept out of every statewide office in 2010.

For a party that allegedly prides itself on speaking to working class concerns, they've too often come off as empty suits mouthing time-honored rhetoric.

"We represent working folks, small business people, the elderly, veterans, people who defended us and fight for our children, and yet we find ourselves getting distracted by all these sidebar issues. We get bogged down and wind up losing credibility," says Cleveland's Ward 11 City Council Member Michael Polensek, who served on the council with Turner from 2005 to 2008. "We have to put good candidates out there who are responsive to the rank and file."

That's proved a tall order in part because of Ohio's diverse geographies and constituencies. Not only is it hard to find candidates with the kind of name recognition to compete across the state, Democrats have had difficulty articulating a message with broad enough appeal.

"We've got gas and coal. We have automotive, manufacturing, fishing and farming. We have a Great Lake and military bases. And another thing that's unique – Ohio has six major cities where other states have only one or two," says Ohio Democratic Party Vice Chairperson Rhine McLin, who had Turner as an intern while in the state senate. "With that kind of demographic, there is no cookie cutter fix to get the state on track."

Democrats' inability to express a coherent, convincing vision for the state and tendency to fall back on trite class- and race-based formulas has made them easy prey for Republican divide-and-conquer rhetoric. Though Governor Kasich's party over-reached in essentially demonizing firemen and police while gleefully attacking public unions with Senate Bill 5, they've generally proven successful at echoing national talking points pitting middle class "makers" against all those poor, lazy "takers."

It's sort of an insidious argument because it sets up a false opposition fueled by an emotion-based response. Not only does the success of the working poor help fuel greater demand (since nearly all their paycheck is spent rather than saved), but encouraging and enabling their economic advancement reduces the strain on the safety net, benefiting all of us. (It's why Head Start is worth its weight in gold – that money on the front-end reduces crime and welfare payments on the back-end.)

Yet it's an easy sell because no one wants to align themselves with putative failure or acknowledge that hard work and virtue aren't sufficient conditions to get ahead. We need our health and often a little luck along the way, particularly in a post-millennial America that's grown slowly when it's grown at all. This us-and-them rhetoric has found expression in statehouse Republicans' refusal to take part in the ACA's Medicaid expansion, even over Governor Kasich's objections.

The state turning its back on the unfortunate or infirmed is something Turner takes personally. It's a subject on which she speaks with some authority.

"Nobody wants to be born poor, nobody wants to have cancer or something happen to them," Turner says, her voice starting to quaver. "My aunt on my grandmother's side went blind spontaneously. Here is a woman that worked hard all of her life at Stouffers, working her way up the chain. All of a sudden one day she wakes up without her sight. Did she ask for that?"

Fire stoked, Turner steams around the bend, those preacher-like cadences suggesting a percussive chugga-chugga.

"Everybody has a hope and a dream. But people do fall short. Things happen in life. Nobody criticizes the millionaire that goes bankrupt, but if you're poor we have less tolerance," she says, now warmed to the subject. "The political rhetoric coming from the right really lacks empathy. But it's one thing to talk. It's another thing to have to the power to put what you say into action."

She'd certainly love the opportunity to reverse the tables on Republicans, and she's the type of candidate the Democrats need to do that – someone young, smart, passionate and articulate. She's a product and an expressive advocate for a system the right would rather de-fund and dismantle. But mostly, she's the kind of dynamic speaker capable of conveying the sentiment and reasoning behind Democratic ideals with an ardor that makes her peers sound like they're spouting boilerplate.

Here to Speak and Kick Ass, And She Just Finished Talking

Turner not only speaks persuasively to the party's long-running commitment to the social safety net, but from experience. It's not a hypothetical thing for her, and her life is the kind of success story Democrats want to be telling.

Turner was just 22 when her mother died. She had finished a year of college, but hadn't followed through. She worked flipping burgers and at Payless Shoes, where she met her husband Jeffery, with whom she had a son. After she recovered from the devastation of losing her mother, Turner returned to Cuyahoga Community College, where she teaches history today.

Her first class was in African-American History with Dr. Dorothy Salem, who would serve as a mentor to Turner. Salem would encourage her to attend Cleveland State, where she'd receive her masters in 1997. While attending CSU, she was drawn into political activism, forming Students for Positive Action with her friend and classmate Ronnie Dunn, now an Associate Professor of Urban Policy at CSU.

That final year of school Turner was called to testify before a state congressional committee on education by Cleveland City Council member Fannie Lewis. Councilperson Lewis was one of the first Democrats to come out in favor of charter schools. "She didn't care," recalls Turner. "She just wanted the children of her neighborhood to have options."

But Dunn and Turner, who had been researching the issue, didn't realize they'd been called to speak by someone in favor of vouchers, which they felt would undermine public education.

"We tell her that we can't testify for these vouchers but what we will do is talk about what we see as being the needs in urban education," says Dunn. "I presented some of the statistical data on the research we did and then Nina followed up with some of the philosophical arguments.

"She spoke so passionately that everybody was congratulating her afterwards and State Treasurer Ken Blackwell came over to her and gushed, 'You have a political future if you want,'" he recalls. "I saw that look in her eyes then and me and some of our other group members said, 'Well that's it!'"

Indeed it was. Turner would intern with McLin. From there she was recruited by Cleveland Mayor Mike White to be his liaison to the city council, acting as his eyes and ears. It not only provided rare insight into the palace intrigue of politics but taught her how things get done.

"Part of my drive and my motivation comes from my time I served with the mayor," she says. "I learned if you have the will to change things there is always a way. If you keep pushing and don't give up – if you believe in something enough to put something on the line – that's what it means to be a public servant."

The Cheese Stands Alone

Turner left White's cabinet in 2001 to run for a city council seat in the Lee-Miles area on the city's far southeast side. She was trounced by 60 points. It might've ended there but her competitor Joe Jones pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 2005. Sensing an opening, Turner beat Jones' wife Tonya by just over 400 votes in a race to fill his vacant seat, becoming Ward 1's first female representative.

She'd only stay a few years, accepting a seat in the Ohio Senate in September 2008 replacing Lance Mason, who'd been appointed to Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. She hadn't been in office long when she became involved in an issue that would come to define her – Issue 6, the plan to reform Cuyahoga County government.

The measure was developed in response to then still-burgeoning investigations into corruption by the county commissioners and just about everyone else in near Lake Erie, and sought to separate the commission's joint executive and legislative responsibilities. It created a county executive and 11-member county council.

Turner was the most prominent black official in favor of the plan and she caught heat from the community. The Call & Post, a newspaper serving the African-American community, accused her of "carrying the water for white folks" and published a cartoon characterizing her as an Aunt Jemima. In the end, Issue 6 passed the county overwhelmingly, only failing to pass Turner's old Ward, and even then only by 20 votes.

"I take great pride in the fact that I stood up because leaders sometimes have to stand even if you're standing alone and take those bullets. And I'm okay with someone disagreeing with me," she says, though she takes grievous exception to the Call & Post's caricature.

In the four years hence, everyone's moved on. Obviously, the convictions of Russo and Dimora probably helped to vindicate her. For their part, the Call & Post has moved on. The paper's editor-in-chief Connie Harper feels those old divisions have healed. "It's water under the bridge," she says.

The stance earned Turner some juice with her senate counterparts across the aisle (by her own admission), not to mention forward-thinking members of her own party.

"With Issue 6 passing, she gained a lot of political capital as a result," says Dunn. "The way she was attacked, the younger generation of political activists came to her defense – and not only blacks. They supported her as a younger, more progressive political individual... not fixated in some of the old parochial race–based identity politics that past and older generations were holding onto."

The vindication would come a year later when in 2010 she was re-elected to the Senate – one of only 10 Democratic senators to remain after that year's Republican onslaught – not even a third of the chamber.

Have Mouth, Will Travel

However brassy and outspoken she may be, there's little questioning Turner's gut-level eloquence. She possesses the rare ability to convey deep emotion and passion in a keen, clear-spoken manner. It creates the impression that she not only says what she means but means what she says, a particularly valuable trait in a politician.

This wasn't lost on MSNBC, which has booked her frequently, particularly on The Ed Show hosted by Ed Schultz. Her skilled oratory's accompanied by a gift for political theatre. She understands the value of the hyperbolic uppercut, whether it's wearing a t-shirt that equates G.O.P. with "Get Out of My Panties" or suggesting that anyone receiving taxpayer dollars should be drug-tested.

The latter was in response to Republican calls to drug-test welfare recipients and turned on a clever rhetorical flourish. "Don't make it a class issue. If you want to protect the taxpayer's dollars, I'm with you. Let's drug-test the general assembly," she says. "You people need to be drug-tested early and often, since clearly you are on something."

Another riposte came in her suggestion that men should have to jump through the same hoops to get erectile dysfunction drugs that Republicans have attempted to put before women's contraception. She initially balks at the suggestion this is funny.

"Nobody laughs at making abortion illegal in the state of Ohio, even in instance of rape or incest, but when a women such as myself suggests that we need to regulate men and show them a little tough love through legislative means, people think it's a joke. I'm serious," Turner fairly bristles. A moment later she relents. "Sometimes satire can let people see things they wouldn't ordinarily see."

Turner's gift for oratory hasn't been lost on the Ohio Democratic Party, either. As she travels the state making contacts and laying the groundwork for a Secretary of State bid, she's appeared with gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald, typically scoring the top speaking slot. They know how to butter their bread and that Turner's a stick of smooth.

Join The Circus And Run For Your Life

Turner began laying the foundation for a Secretary of State run during the fall election. She could be seen on MSNBC echoing Democratic concerns that Ohio Secretary of State John Husted was attempting to disenfranchise the poor, elderly and minorities by limiting polling times. It's a hook she's quick to bite.

"I didn't understand what was wrong with the state in 2008. Not just changing it but going backwards instead of moving forward, putting out directives that just scaled back access to the ballot," Turner offers. "It doesn't matter to me if you bleed red or blue or in-between, I support fair elections for all."

Not that she's wrong, but it feels a bit forced, like perhaps it's beneath her prosaic skills. (Then again, arguing in favor of the right to vote does probably feel very early 20th-century to her.)

What is Turner to do? You work with what's available. She considered running for the U.S. House in 2012 and even initially announced her plans. That would've meant challenging U.S. Rep Marcia Fudge.

However when Democratic/Republican redistricting tussles were finally settled, they'd moved up the primary by two months, leaving precious little time to unseat an incumbent.

Turner can run once more for state senate in '14 before being term-limited out of office, so she has to weigh her options. The obvious problem with running for statewide office isn't just that the results for Democrats have been abysmal.

That might even overstate the odds. No African-American Democratic candidate for statewide office has ever won. Ten have tried and failed, including Strickland appointee for State Treasurer Kevin Boyce, fellow state legislator Charleta Tavares, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, and former judge Yvette McGee Brown. (Three Republicans have succeeded in their bids for statewide office, most recently Ken Blackwell.)

"It's all about opportunity and timing," say McLin. "Senator Turner has to decide if there's opportunity and timing, and do they come together? That's one of the disadvantages of term limits. Sometimes you have to move when you're not ready."

Of course the biggest issue for any candidate for political office in this day and age is money. Citizens United has opened the state up for Super PACs to pour millions into elections and, given Ohio's importance to the Republican Party's presidential ambitions, we can expect political dollars to flood the state in '14.

Turner's out there already traveling the state building bridges and shaking hands.

"She has to ask herself if it's humanly possible to keep that up now until next year, and we're going back to timing and opportunity," McLin says. "It's all about raising money. Not that you need to raise as much as your opponent but you have to be competitive. And if she's thinking about Secretary of State, Husted's always been a Teflon man and a golden boy of the Republican Party."

Attempts to get Husted's commentary went unrequited. "There's going to be plenty of time for political debate going forward," says his spokesman Matt McClellan. "Right now the Secretary's focused on some legislative priorities and working with democrats and republicans to get those issues passed."

A further peril for Turner lies in the name atop the ticket. Some wonder how Fitzgerald will do statewide, and there are still rumors Richard Cordray might challenge him in the Democratic primary. Would either be able to challenge a suddenly resurgent Kasich, and what would a Democratic defeat in the gubernatorial contest mean down the ticket?

Education's The Ticket

"Education is a great equalizer and I'm a living witness to that," Turner says. "It shouldn't matter which zip code the child comes from or who their parents are or are not. We owe all of Ohio's kids that."

Of all Turner's personal gifts and fortuitous circumstances, perhaps the most important is her role as an advocate for education. Here lies the Republicans' greatest unexploited weakness. They've yet to address Ohio's unconstitutional funding formula for public education, effectively passing the buck to the municipalities and ultimately, homeowners in the form of higher property taxes.

"I don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican property owner. If you own a home in Ohio you're getting it put to you," Polensek observes. "Fourteen times they've ruled the funding for public education is unconstitutional and [republicans] refuse to deal with it. Then they wonder why we're constantly falling behind."

Turner again demonstrated her willingness to go against the democratic grain in teaming with Rep. Sandra Williams to get the Cleveland School Plan through the legislature. The plan calls for changes in how the schools are administered and for the first time affords charter schools access to public school monies, giving them one of the 15 mills collected in the recently passed levy. The levy goes back up for another vote in four years giving the city time to prove the plan's more than talk.

The plan initially put Turner at odds with the teachers union, and still provokes grumbling from democrats about the slippery slope of giving private schools public monies, and not addressing the present imbalances.

"I think they let the governor off the hook," says Polensek. "They should've said, 'If you want this plan implemented, we need some money from the state.' What did we get out of the state? We got zip. Who picked up the tab? Homeowners in Cleveland."

Turner feels she's being pragmatic, and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Indeed, she sees this as an example of her willingness to find common ground to get things done.

"We can do this all day. 'Who shot John?' Meanwhile we are losing generations of kids. What are we going to do about that," she asks. "We re going to set aside the constitutional responsibilities of the state to fund education in an adequate and equal way... it's not lost on anybody that for over 15 years the City of Cleveland had not passed an operating levy to do our part. The Cleveland Plan is the catalyst the Mayor thought he needed to get that levy passed and guess what? We passed it."

Turner relates it back to Fannie Lewis, and her stand on behalf of charter schools.

"She spoke out for what she believed in," says Turner. "You build political capital during your time in office and I think it's important to spend it and not let it go to waste."

That's where the ambitious state senator sits, with several stacks of chips before her, wondering if she goes all in and loses, will she be able to find a stake for another hand? She makes like its just part of the game though she takes it quite seriously.

"I consider being in elected office a ministry, and I treat it that way," she says. "I feel blessed to have the people's power. Make no mistake, it's the people's power, and when I leave office, the power goes back to the people."

Just don't make the mistake of writing her off. Once you've broken the cycle, it's easier the second time.

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