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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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This wasn't lost on MSNBC, which has booked her frequently, particularly on The Ed Show hosted by Ed Schultz. Her skilled oratory's accompanied by a gift for political theatre. She understands the value of the hyperbolic uppercut, whether it's wearing a t-shirt that equates G.O.P. with "Get Out of My Panties" or suggesting that anyone receiving taxpayer dollars should be drug-tested.

The latter was in response to Republican calls to drug-test welfare recipients and turned on a clever rhetorical flourish. "Don't make it a class issue. If you want to protect the taxpayer's dollars, I'm with you. Let's drug-test the general assembly," she says. "You people need to be drug-tested early and often, since clearly you are on something."

Another riposte came in her suggestion that men should have to jump through the same hoops to get erectile dysfunction drugs that Republicans have attempted to put before women's contraception. She initially balks at the suggestion this is funny.

"Nobody laughs at making abortion illegal in the state of Ohio, even in instance of rape or incest, but when a women such as myself suggests that we need to regulate men and show them a little tough love through legislative means, people think it's a joke. I'm serious," Turner fairly bristles. A moment later she relents. "Sometimes satire can let people see things they wouldn't ordinarily see."

Turner's gift for oratory hasn't been lost on the Ohio Democratic Party, either. As she travels the state making contacts and laying the groundwork for a Secretary of State bid, she's appeared with gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald, typically scoring the top speaking slot. They know how to butter their bread and that Turner's a stick of smooth.

Join The Circus And Run For Your Life

Turner began laying the foundation for a Secretary of State run during the fall election. She could be seen on MSNBC echoing Democratic concerns that Ohio Secretary of State John Husted was attempting to disenfranchise the poor, elderly and minorities by limiting polling times. It's a hook she's quick to bite.

"I didn't understand what was wrong with the state in 2008. Not just changing it but going backwards instead of moving forward, putting out directives that just scaled back access to the ballot," Turner offers. "It doesn't matter to me if you bleed red or blue or in-between, I support fair elections for all."

Not that she's wrong, but it feels a bit forced, like perhaps it's beneath her prosaic skills. (Then again, arguing in favor of the right to vote does probably feel very early 20th-century to her.)

What is Turner to do? You work with what's available. She considered running for the U.S. House in 2012 and even initially announced her plans. That would've meant challenging U.S. Rep Marcia Fudge.

However when Democratic/Republican redistricting tussles were finally settled, they'd moved up the primary by two months, leaving precious little time to unseat an incumbent.

Turner can run once more for state senate in '14 before being term-limited out of office, so she has to weigh her options. The obvious problem with running for statewide office isn't just that the results for Democrats have been abysmal.

That might even overstate the odds. No African-American Democratic candidate for statewide office has ever won. Ten have tried and failed, including Strickland appointee for State Treasurer Kevin Boyce, fellow state legislator Charleta Tavares, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, and former judge Yvette McGee Brown. (Three Republicans have succeeded in their bids for statewide office, most recently Ken Blackwell.)

"It's all about opportunity and timing," say McLin. "Senator Turner has to decide if there's opportunity and timing, and do they come together? That's one of the disadvantages of term limits. Sometimes you have to move when you're not ready."

Of course the biggest issue for any candidate for political office in this day and age is money. Citizens United has opened the state up for Super PACs to pour millions into elections and, given Ohio's importance to the Republican Party's presidential ambitions, we can expect political dollars to flood the state in '14.

Turner's out there already traveling the state building bridges and shaking hands.

"She has to ask herself if it's humanly possible to keep that up now until next year, and we're going back to timing and opportunity," McLin says. "It's all about raising money. Not that you need to raise as much as your opponent but you have to be competitive. And if she's thinking about Secretary of State, Husted's always been a Teflon man and a golden boy of the Republican Party."

Attempts to get Husted's commentary went unrequited. "There's going to be plenty of time for political debate going forward," says his spokesman Matt McClellan. "Right now the Secretary's focused on some legislative priorities and working with democrats and republicans to get those issues passed."

A further peril for Turner lies in the name atop the ticket. Some wonder how Fitzgerald will do statewide, and there are still rumors Richard Cordray might challenge him in the Democratic primary. Would either be able to challenge a suddenly resurgent Kasich, and what would a Democratic defeat in the gubernatorial contest mean down the ticket?

Education's The Ticket

"Education is a great equalizer and I'm a living witness to that," Turner says. "It shouldn't matter which zip code the child comes from or who their parents are or are not. We owe all of Ohio's kids that."

Of all Turner's personal gifts and fortuitous circumstances, perhaps the most important is her role as an advocate for education. Here lies the Republicans' greatest unexploited weakness. They've yet to address Ohio's unconstitutional funding formula for public education, effectively passing the buck to the municipalities and ultimately, homeowners in the form of higher property taxes.

"I don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican property owner. If you own a home in Ohio you're getting it put to you," Polensek observes. "Fourteen times they've ruled the funding for public education is unconstitutional and [republicans] refuse to deal with it. Then they wonder why we're constantly falling behind."

Turner again demonstrated her willingness to go against the democratic grain in teaming with Rep. Sandra Williams to get the Cleveland School Plan through the legislature. The plan calls for changes in how the schools are administered and for the first time affords charter schools access to public school monies, giving them one of the 15 mills collected in the recently passed levy. The levy goes back up for another vote in four years giving the city time to prove the plan's more than talk.

The plan initially put Turner at odds with the teachers union, and still provokes grumbling from democrats about the slippery slope of giving private schools public monies, and not addressing the present imbalances.

"I think they let the governor off the hook," says Polensek. "They should've said, 'If you want this plan implemented, we need some money from the state.' What did we get out of the state? We got zip. Who picked up the tab? Homeowners in Cleveland."

Turner feels she's being pragmatic, and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Indeed, she sees this as an example of her willingness to find common ground to get things done.

"We can do this all day. 'Who shot John?' Meanwhile we are losing generations of kids. What are we going to do about that," she asks. "We re going to set aside the constitutional responsibilities of the state to fund education in an adequate and equal way... it's not lost on anybody that for over 15 years the City of Cleveland had not passed an operating levy to do our part. The Cleveland Plan is the catalyst the Mayor thought he needed to get that levy passed and guess what? We passed it."

Turner relates it back to Fannie Lewis, and her stand on behalf of charter schools.

"She spoke out for what she believed in," says Turner. "You build political capital during your time in office and I think it's important to spend it and not let it go to waste."

That's where the ambitious state senator sits, with several stacks of chips before her, wondering if she goes all in and loses, will she be able to find a stake for another hand? She makes like its just part of the game though she takes it quite seriously.

"I consider being in elected office a ministry, and I treat it that way," she says. "I feel blessed to have the people's power. Make no mistake, it's the people's power, and when I leave office, the power goes back to the people."

Just don't make the mistake of writing her off. Once you've broken the cycle, it's easier the second time.

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