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Great Black Hope

Can Nina Turner become the first African-American Democrat to win statewide office in Ohio?

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For a so-called fifty-fifty state, you'd think Democrats would have more luck running for statewide office in Ohio. Instead, it's as though their campaigns have been game planned by the Washington Generals for the last quarter century.

State Democrats' electoral troubles are truly biblical – as in Matthew 22:14: many are called but few chosen. They've rotated through candidates like members of Menudo with even less post-'80s success.

Cleveland State Senator Nina Turner represents one of the Democrats' best shots at reversing this tradition of futility, as she weighs a presumed run for Secretary of State.

She's already beat the odds once.

Turner's the oldest of seven children raised by a single mother, who died suddenly at the age of 42 of a brain aneurysm. There was no life insurance. Much of Turner's childhood was spent on welfare. Since she was 14, she'd worked to help earn for the family. She resolved at that point to complete her education, getting a bachelors and masters in history from Cleveland State University, making her a first-generation college grad.

"My mother said to me one day, even though she wasn't a college graduate, she says, 'You are so sweet. You got to go back to college.' Shortly after that she passed," Turner says over lunch at the Carnegie Kitchen. "It made me want to become a cycle-breaker, and as a cycle-breaker, I feel it's my moral obligation to create more cycle-breakers."

If you forgive the jargon-ese for a minute, you can begin to see the formations of the strict backbone and deep empathy that has made Turner a liberal media darling and a liberal that conservatives love to bash.

And with an eye toward a statewide seat, a cycle-breaker is exactly what the Democrats need after woeful performances in recent elections and an 0-for record with African-Americans on those tickets.

The party would love for Turner to work that magic again, but like most politics, it's easier said than done.

The Guys Who Couldn't Shoot Straight

Just once in the last two decades have Democrats enjoyed significant success running for statewide office. That was the hardly indicative 2006 election when they benefited from the coattails of an off-year national Democratic landslide and a local Republican corruption scandal. That luck soon receded as they were swept out of every statewide office in 2010.

For a party that allegedly prides itself on speaking to working class concerns, they've too often come off as empty suits mouthing time-honored rhetoric.

"We represent working folks, small business people, the elderly, veterans, people who defended us and fight for our children, and yet we find ourselves getting distracted by all these sidebar issues. We get bogged down and wind up losing credibility," says Cleveland's Ward 11 City Council Member Michael Polensek, who served on the council with Turner from 2005 to 2008. "We have to put good candidates out there who are responsive to the rank and file."

That's proved a tall order in part because of Ohio's diverse geographies and constituencies. Not only is it hard to find candidates with the kind of name recognition to compete across the state, Democrats have had difficulty articulating a message with broad enough appeal.

"We've got gas and coal. We have automotive, manufacturing, fishing and farming. We have a Great Lake and military bases. And another thing that's unique – Ohio has six major cities where other states have only one or two," says Ohio Democratic Party Vice Chairperson Rhine McLin, who had Turner as an intern while in the state senate. "With that kind of demographic, there is no cookie cutter fix to get the state on track."

Democrats' inability to express a coherent, convincing vision for the state and tendency to fall back on trite class- and race-based formulas has made them easy prey for Republican divide-and-conquer rhetoric. Though Governor Kasich's party over-reached in essentially demonizing firemen and police while gleefully attacking public unions with Senate Bill 5, they've generally proven successful at echoing national talking points pitting middle class "makers" against all those poor, lazy "takers."

It's sort of an insidious argument because it sets up a false opposition fueled by an emotion-based response. Not only does the success of the working poor help fuel greater demand (since nearly all their paycheck is spent rather than saved), but encouraging and enabling their economic advancement reduces the strain on the safety net, benefiting all of us. (It's why Head Start is worth its weight in gold – that money on the front-end reduces crime and welfare payments on the back-end.)

Yet it's an easy sell because no one wants to align themselves with putative failure or acknowledge that hard work and virtue aren't sufficient conditions to get ahead. We need our health and often a little luck along the way, particularly in a post-millennial America that's grown slowly when it's grown at all. This us-and-them rhetoric has found expression in statehouse Republicans' refusal to take part in the ACA's Medicaid expansion, even over Governor Kasich's objections.

The state turning its back on the unfortunate or infirmed is something Turner takes personally. It's a subject on which she speaks with some authority.

"Nobody wants to be born poor, nobody wants to have cancer or something happen to them," Turner says, her voice starting to quaver. "My aunt on my grandmother's side went blind spontaneously. Here is a woman that worked hard all of her life at Stouffers, working her way up the chain. All of a sudden one day she wakes up without her sight. Did she ask for that?"

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