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Q&A: Nina Turner on the Race for Ohio's 11th Congressional District

a photo of 11th Congressional district candidate Nina Turner
Nina Turner for Congress
Former state senator and Democrat Nina Turner is running for the vacant seat in Ohio's 11th Congressional District.

The race to fill the vacant seat for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District will hinge on next Tuesday’s Democratic primary. The district is reliably Democratic; state lawmakers gerrymandered it to be that way and the seat was held for years by Marcia Fudge, now the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Thirteen candidates are on the ballot, but the two getting the most buzz are former state Sen. Nina Turner (OH-25) and Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown, chair of the county Democratic Party.

Turner was not only a state senator, she was a member of Cleveland City Council representing Ward 1 and she co-chaired the Democratic presidential primary campaigns of progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Turner talked with Amy Eddings of Ideastream Public Media about the race and her goals for the office.

I know you hear a lot of things as you campaign in the district and you have a very fleshed-out platform. But I’m going to challenge you to pick the top concern for the constituents of the Ohio 11th.  What are you hearing?

Poverty. I mean, it’s quality of life issues. So, picking one, I’d say quality of life issues because that gives me the runway to put a whole lot under that. So, it’s quality of life. Jobs, healthcare, crime.

I’m going to start with crime. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has endorsed you and has said the federal government needs to do more to crack down on gun trafficking. Do you see a federal role here and how would you go about doing this?

I do, Amy. I see a role for all levels of government and the totality of our community. We do need the federal government to help but we need state, we need county. So, from a programmatic perspective, absolutely, but also from a community perspective, too. As a community, coming together. I was just canvassing in Outhwaite [Homes]. And that is on the southeast side of Cleveland. And that was some of the concerns of the residents there, and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority residents are really concerned and were sharing with me that even little kids are outside at nighttime. And that shouldn’t be. And so that means the community needs to be engaged and involved, too.

Would you support more money for police?

I would support a more comprehensive approach. We can’t police our way out of these challenges. We can’t police our way out of poverty! So, no, it’s a combination of things. We do need social workers, we do need to throw our resources into institutions that help people grow and thrive.

That has often come under the moniker of “defunding the police,” taking money from law enforcement and diverting it toward social services or violence de-escalation efforts. Is that what you support?

Again, for me, this isn’t either/or. And I wouldn’t say "divert." Again, I sat on the Cleveland City Council. And you know what was the biggest part of our budget? Public safety. And that was all the safety forces. It was police, it was fire, it was EMS [ Emergency Medical Services]. You know what constantly gets cut, time after time? I was in the state senate. Education. Resources to our schools, resources to our communities. So, some kind of way, we have to balance the scales on the other side of the ledger so that maybe, just maybe, police can then focus on the worst of the worst.

Your COVID-19 recovery platform would provide recurring federal relief for families and businesses. As it stands, Ohio withdrew early from extra federal unemployment benefits. Municipalities are trying to figure out how they’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in American Rescue Plan aid. And we’ve got the ongoing threat of inflation. Why do you think recurring stimulus is a good idea at this time?

Because the challenges, the plague that is, still — ‘cuz we’re dealing with the delta variant right now — that is the pandemic requires the federal government, particularly and especially, to go big and to go bold, to infuse money into communities. And what happens when people who are poor, working poor and barely middle class, have money? They spend it. Our economy is 70% a consumer economy. That keeps everything going. The federal government is the only level that can do that in that way. And shame on my state, being the governor and any member of the legislature, that thought it was okay to not accept that money. Cleveland is the poorest large city of its size in the United States of America. Twenty-three percent of the residents of Akron live in poverty. Fifty percent of the kids in Cleveland live in poverty. And you can multiply that across this country. People are in pain.

Your top rival, Shontel Brown, used her very first campaign ad in May to draw attention to your criticisms of then-candidate, now-president, Joe Biden, who beat your candidate, Bernie Sanders, by wide margins in the Democratic presidential primary in Cuyahoga and Summit counties. So, what’s your message to those voters who voted for Biden?

My message is that this race is not about any one individual, it’s about us as a whole. This is about the type of district we want to be. And I have run a very policy-oriented race not centered on any one individual because no individual, no matter who they are, are more important than the mammas, the daddies, the grandmammas, the people in this district who need a champion to go to Congress and to have the courage to ask for more.

Will you be able to work with the Biden Administration?

Oh, I look forward to it.

This race is being seen by the national media as a referendum on the future of the Democratic Party. Do you see it that way, as a referendum on the party, on whether it goes progressive or goes mainstream?

I see it as a referendum on what’s right and wrong. I see it as a referendum on humanity. Amy, only one opponent out of 13 invited dark money to come into this race, to try to upset the stasis of this race, only one. But in a country where the people who have the most money get the most voice, for them to be invited in here by that campaign is not only a scourge on this district but it is also going to be very telling about politics moving forward. That big money outside groups can try to decide who they’re going to send to Congress versus the residents of the 11th Congressional District deciding who they’re going to send to Congress. That’s a far different thing. What we are fighting for is humanitarian. That’s what we’re fighting for. That’s what the movement is about. That’s different than the other side.

So, Sen. Turner, if you win the Democratic primary and the general election in November, you’d be seated in the House with one year before the Midterms, which typically sees the party that is out of power in the White House make gains in the House and Senate. What would you focus on getting done in what could be one more year of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate? Would it be that recurring stimulus?

That, and I think the $15 an hour minimum wage, I think that’s important. I think that Democrats can get that done. That’s something that both President Biden and I both agree on. That’s why it’s important to deliver big here so that we can win in 2022.

Copyright 2021 WCPN. To see more, visit WCPN.

Amy Eddings is Host/Producer of NPR’s “Morning Edition” on Ideastream Public Media.