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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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Fire stoked, Turner steams around the bend, those preacher-like cadences suggesting a percussive chugga-chugga.

"Everybody has a hope and a dream. But people do fall short. Things happen in life. Nobody criticizes the millionaire that goes bankrupt, but if you're poor we have less tolerance," she says, now warmed to the subject. "The political rhetoric coming from the right really lacks empathy. But it's one thing to talk. It's another thing to have to the power to put what you say into action."

She'd certainly love the opportunity to reverse the tables on Republicans, and she's the type of candidate the Democrats need to do that – someone young, smart, passionate and articulate. She's a product and an expressive advocate for a system the right would rather de-fund and dismantle. But mostly, she's the kind of dynamic speaker capable of conveying the sentiment and reasoning behind Democratic ideals with an ardor that makes her peers sound like they're spouting boilerplate.

Here to Speak and Kick Ass, And She Just Finished Talking

Turner not only speaks persuasively to the party's long-running commitment to the social safety net, but from experience. It's not a hypothetical thing for her, and her life is the kind of success story Democrats want to be telling.

Turner was just 22 when her mother died. She had finished a year of college, but hadn't followed through. She worked flipping burgers and at Payless Shoes, where she met her husband Jeffery, with whom she had a son. After she recovered from the devastation of losing her mother, Turner returned to Cuyahoga Community College, where she teaches history today.

Her first class was in African-American History with Dr. Dorothy Salem, who would serve as a mentor to Turner. Salem would encourage her to attend Cleveland State, where she'd receive her masters in 1997. While attending CSU, she was drawn into political activism, forming Students for Positive Action with her friend and classmate Ronnie Dunn, now an Associate Professor of Urban Policy at CSU.

That final year of school Turner was called to testify before a state congressional committee on education by Cleveland City Council member Fannie Lewis. Councilperson Lewis was one of the first Democrats to come out in favor of charter schools. "She didn't care," recalls Turner. "She just wanted the children of her neighborhood to have options."

But Dunn and Turner, who had been researching the issue, didn't realize they'd been called to speak by someone in favor of vouchers, which they felt would undermine public education.

"We tell her that we can't testify for these vouchers but what we will do is talk about what we see as being the needs in urban education," says Dunn. "I presented some of the statistical data on the research we did and then Nina followed up with some of the philosophical arguments.

"She spoke so passionately that everybody was congratulating her afterwards and State Treasurer Ken Blackwell came over to her and gushed, 'You have a political future if you want,'" he recalls. "I saw that look in her eyes then and me and some of our other group members said, 'Well that's it!'"

Indeed it was. Turner would intern with McLin. From there she was recruited by Cleveland Mayor Mike White to be his liaison to the city council, acting as his eyes and ears. It not only provided rare insight into the palace intrigue of politics but taught her how things get done.

"Part of my drive and my motivation comes from my time I served with the mayor," she says. "I learned if you have the will to change things there is always a way. If you keep pushing and don't give up – if you believe in something enough to put something on the line – that's what it means to be a public servant."

The Cheese Stands Alone

Turner left White's cabinet in 2001 to run for a city council seat in the Lee-Miles area on the city's far southeast side. She was trounced by 60 points. It might've ended there but her competitor Joe Jones pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 2005. Sensing an opening, Turner beat Jones' wife Tonya by just over 400 votes in a race to fill his vacant seat, becoming Ward 1's first female representative.

She'd only stay a few years, accepting a seat in the Ohio Senate in September 2008 replacing Lance Mason, who'd been appointed to Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. She hadn't been in office long when she became involved in an issue that would come to define her – Issue 6, the plan to reform Cuyahoga County government.

The measure was developed in response to then still-burgeoning investigations into corruption by the county commissioners and just about everyone else in near Lake Erie, and sought to separate the commission's joint executive and legislative responsibilities. It created a county executive and 11-member county council.

Turner was the most prominent black official in favor of the plan and she caught heat from the community. The Call & Post, a newspaper serving the African-American community, accused her of "carrying the water for white folks" and published a cartoon characterizing her as an Aunt Jemima. In the end, Issue 6 passed the county overwhelmingly, only failing to pass Turner's old Ward, and even then only by 20 votes.

"I take great pride in the fact that I stood up because leaders sometimes have to stand even if you're standing alone and take those bullets. And I'm okay with someone disagreeing with me," she says, though she takes grievous exception to the Call & Post's caricature.

In the four years hence, everyone's moved on. Obviously, the convictions of Russo and Dimora probably helped to vindicate her. For their part, the Call & Post has moved on. The paper's editor-in-chief Connie Harper feels those old divisions have healed. "It's water under the bridge," she says.

The stance earned Turner some juice with her senate counterparts across the aisle (by her own admission), not to mention forward-thinking members of her own party.

"With Issue 6 passing, she gained a lot of political capital as a result," says Dunn. "The way she was attacked, the younger generation of political activists came to her defense – and not only blacks. They supported her as a younger, more progressive political individual... not fixated in some of the old parochial race–based identity politics that past and older generations were holding onto."

The vindication would come a year later when in 2010 she was re-elected to the Senate – one of only 10 Democratic senators to remain after that year's Republican onslaught – not even a third of the chamber.

Have Mouth, Will Travel

However brassy and outspoken she may be, there's little questioning Turner's gut-level eloquence. She possesses the rare ability to convey deep emotion and passion in a keen, clear-spoken manner. It creates the impression that she not only says what she means but means what she says, a particularly valuable trait in a politician.

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