Nina Turner is not hard to describe. She’s that other black woman on MSNBC and CNN talking about workers rights, fighting back and pushing for a progressive agenda, even during President Barack Obama’s administration. A former Ohio state senator and secretary of state candidate, she’s straight out of hardscrabble Cleveland, with the political scars to prove it.
Despite being on the edge of Generation X, Turner has the “Ain’t nobody got time for that” political attitude of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the inherent badassery of ’70s Pam Grier and the inside knowledge of Olivia Pope without all the drama.
After years of making Republicans tuck in their chains, and snatching wigs from Democrats who want black votes but not black power, Turner has been placed in the most interesting of positions: head of Our Revolution, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to continuing the Bernie Sanders revolution of 2016. The Root spoke with Turner about what it’s like to become one of the most powerful women in American politics, and whether or not Bernie bros can ever get over their race problem.
The Root: Sen. Turner, congratulations! You’re now head of Our Revolution, replacing former Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver. What are you going to do to keep that revolution going or, hopefully, add to it?
Nina Turner: Stoke that flame to empower the grass roots. Too many people think the power resides in elected officials. No! They serve us. The power resides in the grass roots. Medicare for all, criminal-justice reform; these are the issues that matter to the people, all people of all colors.
TR: So how exactly does Our Revolution work? Do you just give money? Do you make phone calls? What’s the process?
NT: Well, we have 49 affiliates (out of hundreds) across the United States, including D.C. and Puerto Rico, and basically candidates have to seek Our Revolution out. The candidates actually have to interface with the local affiliate and the voters. Imagine that?! It’s not just filling out a questionnaire; we’re looking for progressive candidates.
Then the local affiliate reports to the national office about which local candidates they might want to support. Then we ask them, “What do you want to do? Are you willing to knock on doors? Are you willing to make phone calls?” I know it’s a process, but we want to make sure the local office is committed to the candidate in some real grassroots ways before committing more money and resources.
The story of Our Revolution’s resources is interesting. They have exclusive access to a donor list of 2.8 million people who gave over $218 million to Bernie Sanders in the 2016 cycle alone. Now, the only way for the Democratic Party or any candidate to get to that list is through Nina Turner, making her one of the most powerful people—black, white, Latino, Asian, male or female—in American politics.
With Donald Trump in office, progressives are engaged and enraged. So the list is like art in Turner’s possession, and it becomes more valuable every year. That list could be 4 million by the 2018 midterm elections. That list could be 8 million by the 2020 presidential election. But Our Revolution ain’t trying to give that list to their children, let alone share it with the Democratic National Convention.
NT: We definitely recognize how important that [donor] list is, but it’s not something we think about every day. We know our list is important and our donors are important, but that’s not something we take lightly, and not something we’re just gonna give away.
TR: A lot of black folks have criticized the Sanders campaign and, by extension, Our Revolution for the lack of engagement with black folks. Bernie did terrible with African-American voters in the South, and his economic message, to many people, lacked an important racial component. How do you plan to address that now that you’re head of the movement?
NT: I’m glad you asked that; really I am. When I talk about working families, I’m talking about black people; when I’m talking about health care and a living wage, I’m talking about black families. For me, we still have a lot of work to do, but we are the base of the Democratic Party, so there is no integration of black people; we are a part of this. That’s part of why I’m here.
But also, we have to demand more from our leaders, and we have to talk about system. The system of racial oppression in this country. The systems of abuse in government. That’s what I think the senator didn’t get enough credit for. He talked about systemwide problems, and that’s where black people suffer the most. Black folks catch more hell than anybody in this country except for our Native American brothers and sisters.
TR: What about hiring, though? Last fall, half the staff of Our Revolution quit over the organization’s initial leadership and lack of diversity. How do you plan to change that? Are you hiring more African-American staff? Hiring more African-American outreach and consultants?
NT: Yes, sir. We have a small staff but a very diverse board. The staff is mostly women of color. Mostly black and Hispanic women. I don’t rubber-stamp anything, though. It’s a process, and I’m there making sure every step of the way we’re including the base. This is personal for me as well.
We are unapologetic about our support of progressive candidates across the board, and many of them are African American. Look, it matters to us, black people. We can be socially conservative, but we are forward-thinking, forward-moving on issues that face this country. We all want a better quality of life. We supported [Chokwe] Lumumba running for mayor in Jackson, Miss. We endorsed him. We’re working with the mayoral candidate Randall Woodfin for Birmingham, Ala. We have an unapologetic progressive agenda.
TR: Some Sanders supporters are still mad, claiming that the entire 2016 election was a farce, and that the Democratic Party is essentially the enemy. Do you have a position on the DNC fraud lawsuit in Florida right now, where supposed Sanders supporters are suing the party to get back their donations (not to mention other, more outlandish claims)?
NT: I believe you should do everything to win, but not anything to win, you know? That’s what we want to do as well. We’re going to go, we’re going to work, but some of the things that happened [in the 2016 primary] just aren’t the way we should be doing things. Our Revolution has no formal position on the DNC fraud lawsuit. That doesn’t mean that some of their complaints don’t have merit, but we don’t have a formal position.
TR: Any last words to make sure the audience knows about your new leadership style that they don’t already know?
NT: I want people to say: “That’s a bold sista out there. She’s authentic. She is who she is and she speaks the truth.” Our Revolution is committed to transforming this country at the grassroots for all ethnicities.