Who’s Afraid of Nina Turner?

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Nina Turner is very scary—to power brokers who’ve been spending big money and political capital to keep her out of Congress. With early voting underway, tensions are spiking as the decisive Democratic primary race in northeast Ohio nears its Aug. 3 finish. The winner will be virtually assured of filling the seat in the deep-blue district left vacant by Rep. Marcia Fudge when she became President Biden’s HUD secretary. What’s at stake in the special election is whether progressives will gain a dynamic champion in the House of Representatives.

For the Democratic Party establishment, the specter of “Congresswoman Nina Turner” is alarming. The former national co-chair of the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign has a proven capacity to stir fervent energy on the left around the country. Her ability to inspire at the grassroots is far beyond what mainstream party leaders can do.

All politics is local when the votes are finally counted—but in the meantime, this contest is a national clash of political forces. Turner’s endorsements include 15 progressive House and Senate members along with numerous left-leaning organizations. Her main opponent, Shontel Brown, has supporters who include the upper ranks of Democratic Party leaders as well as corporate heavy hitters.

Hillary Clinton’s mid-June endorsement of Brown was later eclipsed by the third-ranking House Democrat, majority whip Jim Clyburn. He recorded a TV ad for Brown with a swipe at Turner while identifying himself as “the highest-ranking African American in Congress.” In the process of throwing his political weight against Turner—who is a strong advocate of Medicare for All—Clyburn didn’t mention his exceptional record of receiving hefty donations from the pharmaceutical industry.

Last fall, a newspaper in his home state of South Carolina, the Post and Courier, spelled out details under the headline “Clyburn Has Taken More Than $1 Million in Pharma Money in a Decade, Far Surpassing Peers.” The paper reported that Clyburn “has collected more in the last decade from powerful political action committees attached to the pharmaceutical industry than anyone else in the House or Senate.” Clyburn has been vocally in tune with his benefactors, warning against Medicare for All and “socialized medicine.”

That Clyburn would try to undercut Turner’s campaign is logical, especially given her emphatic support for Medicare for All. Likewise, one of her major campaign planks—calling for “environmental justice” and “re-inventing our energy and transportation systems through a Green New Deal”—would hardly appeal to the fossil-fuel mogul who is the biggest funder of the Democratic Majority for Israel super PAC, now intervening with huge ad buys to defeat Turner.

The megadonor behind that intervention is “an oil and gas executive who belongs to a billionaire family,” the Intercept pointed out days ago. “Stacy Schusterman, heir and chair of Samson Energy, a fossil fuel company that owns at least 11 oil and gas wells in Wyoming, donated $1.55 million to Democratic Majority for Israel in 2019 and 2020, a super PAC that has in turn spent over $660,000 on ads” supporting Brown and attacking Turner.

Those ads have descended into blatant deception. “Brown has gained momentum in recent weeks with hundreds of thousands of dollars in support from the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC, who funded flagrantly false mailers smearing Turner,” the Cleveland Scene newspaper reported last week. The methodical lies included claims that Turner has opposed universal healthcare—an assertion that earned the label “wildly dishonest” from Washington Post journalist Dave Weigel and the adjective “sleazy” from Rep. Mark Pocan, chair emeritus of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Democratic Majority for Israel is led by Mark Mellman—a longtime strategist for AIPAC, the powerful right-wing group more formally known as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which remained closely aligned with Benjamin Netanyahu throughout his long and racist tenure as Israel’s prime minister. Another spinoff from AIPAC that’s also spending big bucks on advertising against Turner is a rightward-leaning outfit called Pro-Israel America. Its founder and executive director, Jeff Mendelsohn, worked as a high-level AIPAC operative for more than 10 years.

The massive amounts of advertising and vitriol being dumped on Nina Turner leave Israel and foreign policy virtually unmentioned. And she has said little about the Middle East or other aspects of foreign affairs. But her occasional comments have been clear enough to convey principled independence. In a tweet two months ago, during Israel’s aerial bombardment of Gaza, she wrote: “Palestinian lives matter.” The same week, she expressed solidarity with American Jews and Palestinians who had gathered in front of the State Department to call for an end to Israeli apartheid.

While well-heeled groups that demand unequivocal support for Israel’s policies are funding anti-Turner ads, Shontel Brown has gone out of her way to express fulsome devotion to Israel as well as gratitude to Democratic Majority for Israel. Meanwhile, people who actually live in the congressional district have much to consider about the close-to-home records of the two leading candidates. Turner served on the Cleveland City Council and in the Ohio State Senate. Brown is a local elected official and chairs the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.

Early this month, when Cleveland’s daily newspaper weighed in with an endorsement, it wasn’t a close call. “There is one person in this crowded field who has shown she isn’t afraid to stand up to power and to partisan shibboleths, who has the guts to say what she thinks and do what’s right for her constituents and country, who is passionate about public service and knows the issues, the personalities, the challenges better than anyone else in this race,” the Plain Dealer editorialized. “That person is Nina Turner.” In sharp contrast, the editorial described Shontel Brown as “a pleasant but undistinguished member of Cuyahoga County Council who has little to show for her time in office.”

But the national forces arrayed against Nina Turner are preoccupied with other matters—like protecting the pharmaceutical industry’s leverage over health care, or maximizing the profits of fossil-fuel companies, or maintaining Israel’s power to suppress the rights of Palestinian people. In pursuit of such goals, the mission is clear: Don’t let Nina Turner get to Congress.

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