Looking Back to Go Forward: A Conversation with Nina Turner

Politics Features Nina Turner
Looking Back to Go Forward: A Conversation with Nina Turner

Former State Senator Nina Turner (OH-D) is one of the most engaging, inspiring, dynamic and feisty progressive leaders out there. Turner made headlines as a state senator for her creative and spunky legislating, including her 2012 bill that sought to apply the invasive, infantilizing and humiliating laws that controlled women’s bodies to men. Under SB 307, doctors would need to warn patients in writing about the potential health risks of medication treating erectile dysfunction and would require a notarized affidavit from at least one sexual partner confirming the sexual disorder. Stress tests and psychological counseling would be mandated before and after the administration of the medication. But Turner took the nation by storm in November 2015 when she announced she was switching her support from Hillary Clinton and became a national surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders.

Progressives hoping Turner runs for office in 2018 will have to wait and see. But she’s certainly keeping busy as a “Fighter for the People… Wife, Mother, Sister, College Professor, Motivator-In-Chief,” according to her Twitter bio. She’s also one of the 11 Sanders surrogates on the board of directors of Our Revolution, which carries on “the revolution” started by Sanders by supporting progressive candidates and causes.

With the election of the next Democratic National Committee chair less than a week away, Senator Turner’s voice is more urgent than ever. As I wrote before, this election is a proxy battle for the heart and soul of the Party. Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), who endorsed and was endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders, with his grassroots campaign and history of community organizing, represents the progressive wing of the party while Tom Perez, President Obama’s Secretary of Labor, is literally part of the Obama Coalition and allied with the status quo. Perhaps the most telling sign of the stark contrast between Ellison and Perez is the insistence among Perez supporters (only) that the two men are more or less the same.

Turner spoke to me on my WBAI radio show and podcast, The Katie Halper Show, about how the Democrats need to learn from their mistakes in order to start winning elections; why the DNC chair race will reveal if the Democrats are indeed capable of saving themselves; how to reach out to potential allies; why Berniecrats deserve an apology; and an eleven year-old-girl who needs to be giving workshops to the DNC. 

This interview has been edited and shortened for length and clarity.

Katie Halper: How can the Democratic Party move forward? A lot of people don’t want to talk about how we wound up with Trump as president. “We can’t look back, we can only look forward and focus on defeating Trump’s agenda.” But how can we take him on, defeat him in 2020 or whoever comes after him if we don’t learn from the mistakes made by the Democratic Party?

Nina Turner: You really hit the nail on the head. In order to move forward, we do have to learn from our past and look back at what happened during the primaries. The way forward is to confess our sins and to figure out how we go forward with everyone. This isn’t just about being a Democrat. This is about being a conscious human being. If you believe, as Senator Bernie Sanders does, that the working poor and middle class deserve better; that we must educate our young people so that they’re not saddled with college debt; that Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare should be protected; that people should grow up in safe neighborhoods and that their children should have futures better than theirs; that universal healthcare is morally right and also economically viable; If you believe those things, then your political affiliation doesn’t matter. We must unite.

And I’m gonna tell you something, Katie—we have to start winning elections. Millions of people are disappointed in the election. But millions are happy. So what are we going to do to reach out to all of our sisters and brothers in this country? As Stephen Covey once said, “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Instead of talking down to people and calling them names, those of us on the progressive side gotta win elections. We can have the most progressive platform—which the Democrats did this time around—but that means nothing unless you have the power to execute it. We need people of good consciousness to be involved, to run for office, to win those offices so we can push those policies that we believe are in the best interest of the people of this country and, by extension, the world. We have to organize and we have to win.

We can take a page from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, who said “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We have to be hard on the issues and soft on people.

Halper: I like that. There really does seem to be a divide on the left between people who acknowledge bigotry and want to fight against it and people who are quick to write people off as irredeemable bigots. As you just said, we have to win elections. I want people who might say bigoted things to be reached out to so they’re ideally no longer bigots or at the very least not voting for the most bigoted nominee. That seems to be in the best interest of everyone, including the people at the receiving end of bigotry.

Turner: Take it from me as an African-American woman, baby, I have seen bigotry and I’ve heard stories about it from generations before me in my family. But this country unfortunately was founded on bigotry and sexism. We’ve made enormous progress and one of the things we can take great pride in is the blood, sweat and tears of of folks who resisted. But we’re all socialized in a country founded on taking away the land of our Native American sisters and brothers, enslaving African sisters and brothers, not treating women as equals. I think it’s patently unfair to blame racism and bigotry on just one person. It didn’t start with that person and it won’t end with that person. It is our responsibility to try to understand each other. Now, if somebody’s a flat out racist and trying to hurt people, that’s different. But if someone is expressing something, we have an obligation to understand where they are coming from.

Halper: There are some people who are going to be lost causes, who we’ll never reach. But there are some people who I do sincerely think are potential allies. Something that was infuriating during the primary was how people used Bernie’s ability to resonate among angry white men as evidence he was a racist like Trump. Sanders’ strength was precisely that he spoke to some of the same audience but offered an anti-racist, anti-xenophobic message. He didn’t just speak to that audience, despite the myth that he only had white supporters. But people saw his being able to reach out to the very people we needed to reach as a bad thing.
Turner: That’s right. The very people that would have helped a Democrat win the election. Hello! The same people who voted for President Barack Obama ended up voting for Mr. Trump in states like mine, Ohio.

As someone who traveled this country both with and for the Senator, there were many people of color supporting him. He just didn’t have enough time because he hadn’t been running for president for that long. But he saw a need and he got in this race. He is a man who, in his twenties, was fighting against bigotry at his own University of Chicago. He didn’t have to do that but he did because he had heart-soul agreement. Someone’s history matters. What they’ve done for the cause matters. Just because Senator Sanders doesn’t necessarily always express identity politics in the way some people feel he should, it is unfair to brand him as someone who doesn’t understand it.

It really bothers me that some people said that the Senator didn’t care about racism or didn’t get it. He does get it. That’s why he got in this race. He was fighting in this race for all of us. He did better than Hillary Clinton and Trump among millennials of all ethnic backgrounds. That says to me that the Millennial generation sees the future and is committed to political, economic and social justice.  They know what kind of world they want to inherit and what kind of world they want to leave the generations after them. That is the beauty of the future.

Halper: What is Our Revolution doing?

Turner: We are helping progressive candidates and standing up for progressive issues, like the 28th Amendment to overturn Citizens United, which passed on the state level in both California and Washington state. We’re in the fight for Medicare for all.  I am really honored to be one of eleven kick-“behind” board members on Our Revolution. Senator Sanders lit the flame but it’s our job to keep the fire burning. There are many progressive leaders all over this country. Some are Millennials, some are Gen Xers like me, some are Baby Boomers, Some have titles, some are just every day grassroots people. But all of us are fighting and putting a little extra on our ordinary so that extraordinary things can happen in and for this country and, by extension, the world.

That is really what I want people to take from this. We may be disappointed but we cannot give up. We must fight. Every generation is charged with advancing social justice, political justice, economic justice for the next generation. I think of the words of one of my favorite ministers, Reverend Dr. Otis Moss in Cleveland, who actually marched with Dr. King. One day in 2014, I was feeling really disappointed about the voter suppression efforts in my state and across the country, and he said to me “Senator, the struggle is forever, so we are forever in the struggle.” We are forever in that struggle. It never ends. The question becomes what are you going to do for the cause? Marching is good. Family coming together is good. Reassuring each other that we can change the world is good. But we have to take action. And one phase of that action is in the political realm. You have to have that political power to make the change.

Halper: What do Dems have to do for that? How do we push them to fight Trump without recreating the neoliberalism that helped Trump get into the White House?

Turner: Well, first of all, it starts with electing a new chairperson of the DNC, which will happen February 25. We will know if the Democratic Party is serious about turning things around depending on who they pick to be DNC chair.

Halper: Keith Ellison?

Turner: Yes. I am supporting Congressman Ellison. If the DNC doesn’t elect him, I’m not so sure the party is serious about changing. Because the party structure itself has to regain its integrity. That is what’s so biting about what happened in 2016. Not just that Senator Sanders was not treated fairly, but that the structure that is the Democratic Party lost integrity.

We have to acknowledge that. Berniecrats deserve an apology. The sins must be confessed and whoever is the next leader must say very clearly that what happened to Senator Sanders in the primary will never happen to anybody again, whether they’re running for Dog Catcher or President of the United States. That the DNC, by its own bylaws, will be neutral in a primary. That no bodies, no fingers, no thumbs will be placed on the scale. There needs to be a healing within the Democratic Party.

We have to go and get the people who were not necessarily diehard Democrats but who started to believe because of the candidacy of Senator Sanders. But in order to get them, the Party must show it learned its lesson. And that the leadership will change and that every person who works for the DNC understands very clearly what their role is. The D should matter. It shouldn’t just be some letter or symbol that automatically gets you elected.

We lost our way in 2016 and we lost the election because of it. Let’s face it: we’ve been losing statewide and legislative elections since 2009. It’s not just about the President but the State Senators and State Reps and Governors and Secretaries of State and auditors and Attorneys General. And we have to stop talking about off-year elections. There’s no such thing. Every single year there is an important election and we need people to come out and vote, and to run and to care. And we need elected officials to do what is necessary to change the lives of the people who elected them. They need to stop whispering sweet nothings into voters’ ears every time it’s time to run, but then are nowhere to be found when it’s time to put up.

Halper: I remember seeing you on MSNBC right after Trump was elected, and you said, it was about “recognizing that people are suffering in this country. And Mr. Trump, like it or not, spoke to that hurt.” It’s so important to actually assess what people find appealing about Trump. Some Democrats bury their heads in the sand and kick sand back in the faces of others at the same time, to kind of butcher the metaphor. There’s an entitled sense that we don’t need to win people over if they’re not already with us.

Turner: It’s called running for office for a reason. The person running needs to earn the vote. And that’s every time they run. This is not given to you. You don’t own the seat. You’re running for the Office. You have to win people over. It pains me how it became the other way around, especially in 2016, as if voters owed the people who were running.

And if we could stop tearing each other down to prove a point. Social media can be used for good, or evil. I’ve been called everything but a child of God just because I am a strong-willed woman. I consider myself a Congresswoman-Shirley-Chisholm-Senator-Sanders-Berniecrat: unbought and unbossed. I stand up for what is right no matter what. And we can debate the issues, but tearing each other down and thinking it’s OK to hire professional trolls is wrong. I’ve seen some despicable things on the Left. We have to stop saying, ‘Love Trumps Hate’ unless we really mean it. And, if we really mean it, then again, hard on the issues but soft on people.

Before I go, I want to tell you guys a lesson I learned at Emporia State University where I was talking about some of the things we’ve been talking about right now. There was an 11-year-old who came up to me after I spoke and said, “so what you mean is argue against someone’s point but not their character.”

Her name is Laura Baldwin. And I just want to give her a shout out for being so brilliant. And I hope that the grown folks take a lesson from the eleven-year-old.

Halper: She should be giving workshops to the DNC.

Turner: Yes she should.

Born, raised, and still living in NYC, Katie Halper is a writer, radio show host, filmmaker, comedian and former history teacher who identifies as a feminist Bernie Bro. You can find her writing and videos at Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Nation, Vice, and catch The Katie Halper Show on on WBAI Wednesdays at 7pm, the podcast on Soundcloud and iTunes and extra bonus content at Patreon, and follow her on Twitter.

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