Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude
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Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude

The Progressive Revolution Is Being Led by a Black Woman

Nina Turner in her Our Revolution office in Washington, D.C., on April 10, 2018
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr (The Root)
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If Nina Turner is tired and stressed out when I catch up with her in April, in her cluttered, Washington, D.C., office at Our Revolution, she doesn’t show it. She rarely works less than 12 hours a day, and her hectic schedule essentially keeps her on a plane; she has just flown into D.C. after a canvassing event the day before and is headed out of town to another one the following day.

Every day since Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tapped her to lead his political organization, Turner has been on a mission to push the Democratic establishment to realize the inevitable: The political revolution is here, whether they want to accept it or not. The future of the party—the working poor, minorities, the white working-class—can no longer depend on safe, centrist leadership. It needs revolutionaries, the kind Turner travels the country to support in their local races, where the paradigm shift really begins.

For progressives, Turner is the savior the Democratic Party needs. For others, she is the Bernie disciple they wish would shut up and go away. Turner knows how she is perceived and it hurts. But what pains her even more is that the party that claims black women are its backbone is also undermining them.

She cites the low number of black women in elected office and in positions of power within the party. Or how Democrats sometimes vote against the interests of their base.

For instance, 33 House Democrats and 17 in the Senate voted in favor of bank deregulation, which works against black homeownership and black women, as my colleague at The Root, writer Michael Harriot, has pointed out. Ironically, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, whose election victory was sealed mainly because of black women, voted for the bill.

“We were being told we’re the backbone of the Democratic Party. Yet and still, you have Democrats who would dare vote for a bill that they knew would cause harm and pain [to] the very communities that those black women live in,” Turner says.

Do they really know that the bill harms black women?

“They know,” she answers. “But they don’t give a damn.”

Toeing the centrist line in selecting candidates has produced the kinds of bills that deregulate Wall Street, which, in turn, harms the same people Democrats claim they’re protecting, Turner believes. Part of her triangular approach to running Our Revolution involves making mainstream Democrats “give a damn” about the harm these types of bills cause.

As she sees it, on one side of the triangle are candidates, on the other side are issues, while the third side is about transforming the party.

“None of those are more important than the other,” she explains. “That is the mission of Our Revolution: to stir up political discourse—to reclaim democracy for everyday people in this country.”

That means raising a lot of hell, as she feels Fannie Lou Hamer did back in her day.

“She went against the Democratic machine,” Turner, 50, says of Hamer. “They formed the Mississippi Freedom [Democratic] Party against the traditional Democratic Party. This was a black-white coalition in Mississippi. The traditional Democratic Party was not serving their needs. And that is what we need in the 21st century: an awakening of coalition-building that recognizes that.”

Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer: These are names that Turner evokes often during our hourlong conversation. She’s wearing her signature gold-rimmed, black glasses, a red dinner coat, black jeans and graffiti-patterned Chuck Taylors. On her desk is a copy of Chisholm’s Unbought and Unbossed, which she reads at least once a year to keep herself grounded.

Her unflinching support of Sanders still irritates some Democrats. Bring up her name in the presence of Hillary Clinton-leaning Democrats and you’ll get a sharp eye roll. Turner is aware of this. However, what strengthens her resolve to push through the negative criticism and online insults—which, according to Turner, include being called names like “Bernie’s Omarosa” and even his “Aunt Jemima”—is that she believes she’s living out her God-given purpose: unifying a divided America.

“It stings like hell,” she says of the strained friendships and harsh criticisms. “Because, contrary to popular belief, I am a human being and I do have feelings. I feel deeply. I’m fighting this justice fight. I believe that I am on the justice journey very much in the same spirit of many of our foremothers and forefathers that have gone on before us.”

For Turner, that journey is bigger than turning America blue—it is about ensuring that Democrats make America progressive.

Turner took over Our Revolution in June 2017 in hopes of maintaining the enthusiasm of Sanders’ 2016 presidential run. One of the reasons she was hired by the board was her ability to replicate Sanders’ rock-star appeal, according to several Our Revolution board members.

A former Cleveland city councilwoman and Ohio state senator, Turner knew how to win local elections. She also understood how to run for statewide office as a black woman—and lose with dignity, as she did when she was soundly defeated in her run for secretary of state during the 2014 general election.

All that experience would prove essential for her current role at Our Revolution. The group engages in voter education, political activism and the development of young, progressive talent in anticipation of running for local office.

Since its inception, the organization claims 75 electoral wins out of the 175 candidates it has endorsed so far. Its reach has also ballooned in a short period of time, with more than 600 Our Revolution chapters around the country.

Seven candidates whom the organization endorsed won in the primaries this past May, with Stacey Abrams, the first black woman to win a major-party nomination for governor in U.S. history, being the most notable. The other six are two U.S. House candidates, one city council seat, two state House seats and one state Senate candidate.

Many of the people Our Revolution endorses are running for office for the first time. The idea is to start from the beginning and groom a new generation of talent. Much of the country’s attention is focused on nationwide races, but Turner believes that real change starts at the local level.

As far as Our Revolution Board Chair Larry Cohen is concerned, Turner is an overwhelming success in that regard.

“She works seven days a week,” Cohen says. “If I had my way, she would work less. How’s that work as an on-the-record comment from a board chair?”

That wasn’t the sentiment expressed in a recent Politico article, which criticized Turner and the organization for failing in their mission. The story quoted one former Our Revolution board member, Lucy Flores, who raised concerns from other members that Turner’s hectic travel schedule was perhaps distracting her from running the organization properly.

In an interview with The Root, Flores says that Our Revolution’s strategy failed to adequately include Latinx issues and that she had spent six months with the board trying to resolve her concerns before resigning.

Flores and others also complain that Tezlyn Figaro, a consultant Turner hired for Our Revolution, made appearances on Fox News during which she disparaged immigrants. Screenshots of her tweets include comments arguing that “Black ppl worried about if an ILLEGAL immigrant gets a pass is being bamboozled,” which points to an image that reads, “More blacks are under prison/parole control in 2010 than were enslaved in 1850.”

Figaro tells The Root that she apologizes for her comments, but says that Flores and Our Revolution co-chair Catalina Velasquez are jealous of Turner and wanted to use her remarks about immigrants to unseat her.

Flores and Velasquez deny the allegation.

While she says she was troubled by Figaro’s statements, Velasquez showed support for Turner, saying that one black woman’s views should not be conflated with another’s. Furthermore, she says, the organization is learning how to better vet potential employees interested in working for the organization to ensure that they share its values.

“The organization is doing well financially; it has protocols in place for endorsements. We don’t play favoritism, and we have all sorts of accountability measures in place,” Velasquez, who is transgender and Latina, says. “Yes, we are going through growing pains, and sometimes we don’t see eye to eye, but we’re also working through that.”

Though Flores leveled a fair amount of criticisms at Turner over Figaro’s hiring and the management of the organization, she says that this ordeal has been hurtful and it’s her hope that she and Turner can repair what was once a close friendship.

“I have absolutely no ill regard for Nina,” Flores says. “But we have to hold ourselves accountable. If we’re willing to go out there and hold our own Democratic Party accountable, we need also [to] be courageous enough to do that to ourselves.”

Building any organization with the profile of Our Revolution is going to be met with setbacks. What worries some of Turner’s supporters is whether she will be given enough time to maximize its potential.

They are quick to point out that as a black woman, she is probably criticized much more severely than a white person in her position would be, as Glynda Carr and Kimberly Peeler-Allen wrote in Rewire.News.

Black women must overcome certain stereotypes, like processing complex emotions in ways that are ultimately channeled into anger, having a lack of ambition, or being fiscally selfish or reckless. Even Georgia gubernatorial candidate Abrams has been criticized as unfit to run because of her debt issues.

That is one of the hardest challenges of running Our Revolution for Turner: Even though she is not within the Democratic Party power structure, she is running a prominent political organization as a prominent, black woman, and she can’t escape the racial and gender challenges that come with it.

“It’s easy to make the black woman the whipping post,” she says. “It always has been in this country—people, whether they do it subliminally or they’re fully conscious when they do. And also, they want to take away my agency. I’m supposed to go along with the program. And when I don’t go along with the program—or anybody else, for that matter—you step out of place, if you are a black woman, especially. This country will continue to remind you that you are out of your place.”

Turner’s closest allies understand the racial pressure she’s under and are quick to point out some of the hypocrisy within the criticism that’s been directed at her, particularly in the “win-loss” critique.

“It’s a new organization and it’s going against some very strong headwinds,” says Democratic National Committee Deputy Chair Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). “The fact that they are still organizing and growing around the country deserves some credit. The Democratic Party hasn’t won every race that we’ve entered. You can’t measure a group based on who’s won that seat and this seat. Nina is a very important political voice, and she has helped Our Revolution to be taken seriously—wherever it is. They are definitely in the fight.”

Turner is not running for a high-profile elected office seat, but her job is no less difficult. She is charged with forcing the Democratic Party to drop its centrist hegemony, which she feels leaves black people with Democratic leaders who legislate against their interests. A progressive ideological victory that Turner mentions is Kamala Harris’ co-sponsoring of Sanders’ single-payer health plan, a sign that high-profile Democrats know they will be pushed beyond their centrist comfort zones.

“In that way, Our Revolution is winning overwhelmingly,” Turner says. “So don’t just judge us by how many candidates win. Judge us on the imprint that we are making on the political discourse.”

Indeed, Bernie Sanders is leading the charge nationally. But it has been Turner’s work, her allies say, that has helped the everyday voter realize how the political revolution is benefiting them. Jim Zogby, a board member at Our Revolution, says one of the reasons Turner is getting so much criticism is that many inside the Democratic Party see her national popularity as a threat.

“They want to be Nina,” he says. “And they’re not.”

After the 2016 election, the Clinton and Sanders factions continued battling over the state of the Democratic Party—and still are.

The Unity Commission, which consists of eight Sanders supporters, was formed within the DNC to reconcile the rifts. One of the biggest complaints from the Sanders camp has been about the power of superdelegates when picking a presidential nominee, which they believe decisively favored Clinton in 2016.

Sanders and DNC Chairman Tom Perez say the process was “rigged,” a sentiment Turner has long shared. (In case you’re wondering, even without superdelegates, Sanders still would have lost the primary because Clinton still won the popular vote and pledged delegates.)

The Congressional Black Caucus wrote an open letter to party leadership in 2016 opposing the elimination of superdelegates and open primaries. This was partially because the superdelegate system had “worked well,” and “allowing independent or Republican voters to participate in the Democratic primary would dilute minority-voting strength in many districts across the country.”

Moreover, the CBC has argued that superdelegates allow for black representation, which would not exist in the national convention.

Turner scoffs at that argument.

“Most of those people are white—so what are they talking about? What the system fears is that they will give [a] real voice to the people. That’s what the system fears more than anything,” Turner says. “So, of course you’re gonna throw up the fact that it’s gonna hurt black people as the red herring, when really it is about power.” (Turner isn’t wrong about the ethnic breakdown; superdelegates are mostly white.)

In an interview with The Root, Perez admits that there have been struggles as the DNC mends the wounds from the 2016 primary, but he is also confident that the party is headed in the right direction. Perez says that both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns agreed that superdelegates needed a closer look and would be part of the rebuilding process.

“For many voters, they have a lack of trust or faith in the Democratic Party, because they think it’s the nominating processes that are less democratic,” he says.

The DNC is hoping to resolve the superdelegates issue sometime this year.

Another challenge Turner has been working on is the progressive movement’s messaging to black people. Some of Our Revolution’s most high-profile elected leaders are already leading that charge on the local level.

Chokwe Antar Lumumba, mayor of Jackson, Miss., has vowed to make his city “the most radical city on the planet,” in terms of economic justice and parity. Currently considered to be one of the nation’s most progressive leaders, Randall Woodfin, the mayor of Birmingham, Ala., is working to create free college opportunities for residents of his city.

Woodfin and Lumumba speak using language that doesn’t undermine how race plays a role in economic justice.

Sanders, however, gives many black people pause. He blundered in Mississippi during an event marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in which he should have honored the slain leader but mentioned former President Barack Obama’s shortcomings instead.

He insists on centering the white working class in the Democratic Party’s outreach without recognizing the racism those voters overlooked to elect a racist president—something that can complicate Turner’s black outreach.

“It’s not [Turner]. Black folks are weary of [Sanders’] position. They just don’t trust it. And she happens to be propagating that position,” says Nadia E. Brown, associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Purdue University.

Michelle Gilliam, Sanders’ 2016 New York state political director, says that one of the challenges the Sanders campaign did not anticipate during the presidential election was the legions of unofficial, outside splinter groups. These groups formed in support of the senator, but their tone and messaging was not managed and could not be controlled by Sanders’ official campaign staffers—especially online.

While campaign staffers were disciplined in their talking points, many of Sanders’ white, progressive supporters had a tendency to undermine those messages with condescension toward black voters, who could have possibly been won over otherwise, Gilliam—who is black—adds.

“They were certainly a force. They helped to propel a lot of wins in states where there were caucuses. They were tremendously dedicated. But the prototype of a Bernie bro doesn’t come out of nowhere,” Gilliam, who later went on to work for the Clinton campaign during the 2016 general election, says. “It’s not completely unfounded.”

Although Sanders founded Our Revolution, the movement has now eclipsed his personal fame. The current centrist culture isn’t working, and if black people want real representation in the Democratic Party, they need to realize that it won’t always come in a traditional party package, Turner says. That is why she has gone hyperlocal with her strategy for cultivating candidates, training them to be as progressive in their politics as possible.

And if you’re still hung up on Bernie Sanders being an independent and that he doesn’t address race enough, Turner says she wants you to consider something: “We gotta remember that African Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. No matter if they serve us or not.”

A signature argument of the “Bernie would’ve won” crowd is that he would have fared better with the white, working-class voters Donald Trump was able to win over in the general election, especially in the Midwest. There were a number of factors that worked in Trump’s favor—the nativist rhetoric that ultimately evoked white people’s racist fears and Clinton’s own failure to campaign adequately in key swing states, to name a few.

Sanders has long complained that the Democratic Party’s elitism is what sank its chances of winning the white working class. Some have countered that those votes were lost anyway. Anyone who would vote for a man who spews the hatred, racism, sexism and transphobia Trump has elocuted is not worth being pursued by the party at all.

Why, then, should Sanders and Our Revolution try to reach them in the first place? Is that a winning strategy for 2018 and 2020?

“I don’t believe that any leader, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, should be in the business of punching down,” Turner says. “I mean, listen. I’ve been disappointed when I’ve lost races, and I’ve won races. I’ve had to sit back in 2014 and say, ‘In the state of Ohio, did I lose because I was a black woman?’ You know? ‘Was it because I’m a woman? What was it?’ You know? And it’s probably all of those things. But what I didn’t do is walk into rooms and make excuses and vilify people.

“But if somebody decided to vote for Mr. Trump, is it OK for me to go around the country and say that they were ‘deplorable,’ or ‘basement dwellers,’ or [that] they voted against their self-interests? That they are just dumb and stupid?” she says. “We don’t win people over by calling them dumb and stupid.”

Having run for elected office in Ohio, Turner understands this more than anyone. Black female voters within the state were deciding factors in Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories. Turner was one of those black women who not only helped turn out black voters but also traveled to small, mostly white towns in an effort to convince folks to cast their ballot for America’s first black president. She even received standing ovations in rooms where she and her husband, Jeff, were the only black people present.

In 2012, the tension of the race was tighter than in 2008, with Turner having to engage white voters unsure of whether to give Obama a second term.

“‘Now, I know we probably ain’t get everything that we wanted,’” she recalls telling audiences in the small, majority-white towns she visited. “I said that to the black folks. ‘You don’t owe him anything. He gotta earn your vote every time. But don’t you think, up until this point, he’s earned the opportunity to serve a second term?’”

During an appearance on Ed Shultz’s MSNBC show on Election Day in 2012, Turner recalls the host asking, “Will Obama win Ohio?” She recalls that she gave a response so confident, her husband, who was watching from the greenroom, later asked, “Babe, what you doing?”

Realizing how grand her response was, she says she dropped to her knees and said, “Lord have mercy. You got to help a sister.”

“I just got out there talking all kinds of stuff on national TV—[so] we got to deliver Ohio,” she recalls saying to herself.

Obama would eventually win the state, thanks in large part to black voters. There was a lesson in that experience that’s helping her in her current work for Our Revolution: Every vote matters. And, yes—even those you think are lost to the other side. That is how you win: by going after every potential Democrat—even those who voted for Trump the last go-round.

Without question, the political revolution needs the white working class to win, but it doesn’t have to change its values to win their votes at the expense of minority support either, Turner believes. She certainly didn’t switch her tone or suspend her blackness when she appealed to those white voters in rural Ohio unsure of Obama in 2012.

Turner is convinced that same gospel will help progressives win the midterms this year, in 2020 and beyond.

“I spoke to people’s hearts,” she says. “I didn’t vilify them.”