Nina Turner wants progressives to celebrate wealth

Talking with the Ohio congressional candidate about lessons from the Bernie campaign, her multiple lenses on policing, and why the left should distinguish predatory capitalism from the desire to rise

Happy New Year, everyone!

I wish all of you and yours a peaceful, healthy, coup-less 2021. I’m grateful to have you aboard. And I’d like you to meet someone:

I first encountered Nina Turner at LaGuardia Airport. I was about to embark on a trip covering Bernie Sanders. First I saw him — a white-haired apparition in the security line like everyone else, hunting through his pockets, with his air of perpetual concern. And standing beside him was his wing woman and warm-up act and hype maestro, former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner.

After security, Bernie was squired away to a lounge. But Nina headed straight to the gate. And there I began to watch her work.

She was Bernie’s revolution of siblinghood in the flesh, someone who matches the abstract love of humanity with a concrete love of human beings. At the gate, people came up to her. We love you on TV! You keep fighting. Is he going to win? And these praises and queries brought out her grace: she asked people their names, thus giving them, in an instant, a story they may tell for the rest of their lives; she asked where they’re from, asked them to tell her more about themselves. You were left with the impression that the moment you launched by interrupting her in a busy airport, an interruption she was enduring, at some cost to energy and sanity, a hundred times a day, was a pleasure for her nonetheless, that it mattered as much to her as to you.

We were standing outside an Auntie Anne’s, the pretzel chain owned by one of those private-equity firms that she and Sanders frequently rail against. We both noticed the inviting smell. It reminded me of someone I had recently met, a young woman who had worked for a company that made fake scents that stores could emit to lure customers in. I mentioned this to Nina, and, at first, she took it in the way I meant it — as a perfect illustration of the “rigged system,” companies using fake smells to sell food filled with fake ingredients. She shook her head: those companies. But then I saw another thought creep across her face, prompting a decision that reflected her embrace of complexity despite her convictions: she got in line for a pretzel.

At the time, Nina was president of Our Revolution, a progressive political action committee that grew out of the Sanders movement, and a former state senator. Now, she is running for the U.S. Congress. When President-elect Joe Biden recently nominated her Ohio congresswoman, Marcia Fudge, to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Nina promptly announced a run to replace her.

I spoke to Nina the other day about progressives and wealth, race and policing, and what she would rename the Cleveland Indians if she had to choose on the spot.

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“What I am saying to the movement is that everybody has a hope and a dream”: a conversation with Nina Turner

ANAND: You have likened voting for Biden over Trump to eating half a bowl of shit instead of the whole thing. So here’s my question: how is the Biden transition, um, tasting to you right now as you're seeing it unfold?

NINA: When I made that comment, it was spurred by my passion for working people. Whether it was South Carolina or Iowa or Illinois or Oregon or California, I had the opportunity over the last few years to come face-to-face with people and their pain. It was thinking about what the opportunities could be, and what was being presented to the American people, that set me off in that way.

In terms of how things are tasting right now, it still remains to be seen. Some of the appointments — for example, Congresswoman Deb Haaland — that is long overdue. I'm happy not just for her to be in that position but also for this nation. There are many groups, as we all know, that have been left out of the equation historically in this country and not given the opportunity to serve in the highest levels of government, whether that's running for statewide office or being appointed to cabinet positions. The UN ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield — I like that pick as well.

ANAND: You obviously had a tremendous opportunity to watch Bernie Sanders up close, opening for him, advising him. Now you're running yourself. I wonder what you learned at the top of that movement, in the throes of that movement, about where it came up short and what you want to do differently.

NINA: The movement is young, and when you are on the precipice of something of this magnitude, there are going to be lots of blind spots. I believe that our movement could benefit from becoming more agile and more organized. There are many groups and individuals and organizations that make up the progressive movement, but we are not as organized and agile as the neoliberal or moderate wing of the Democratic Party.

And you know what? We came close. We came closer than anybody ever has over the last few decades. And for that we should be proud. We did change the narrative. The narrative was changed in 2016, and the narrative was changed in 2020. And you see that reflected in the debates themselves — what the Democratic apparatus as a whole had to have a reckoning with.

I submit that if it were not for the courage of Senator Bernie Sanders and this movement, what animated the party would have looked different. We would not have been debating whether or not universal healthcare is an obligation of this country, and canceling student debt. All of the issues that we fought for 2016 laid the foundation for what was ultimately debated across Democratic circles in 2020, even though the candidates did not necessarily all come to an agreement on how to get there.

In that regard, getting the American people to take a step back and reflect on what they ultimately deserve is something different from what we have seen in recent electoral politics on the presidential level. We were successful in that regard.

ANAND: On the stump, I heard you say something that I never forgot. You said, "I was born poor, but I'm not trying to die that way." The reason it struck me was a lot of folks aligned with you in progressive politics don't actually acknowledge the aspirations that a lot of Americans have to create wealth, maybe to start a business. It's sort of a missing language in a certain wing of the progressive movement. Do you think progressives need to speak more to the desire for folks, particularly in marginalized communities, to create wealth, to pursue aspiration?

NINA: I do, and I want to continue to be one of the teachers of that lesson, somebody that is out there trying to help people to see things a different way. Even that comment came from my lived experiences. 

I have lived in all three of the categories: the poor, the working poor, and the barely middle class. As a child of working-class parents who divorced young, I have been food insecure. I will just say flat-out going to bed at night without enough food to eat. Hungry. Going to bed hungry.

As the oldest of seven children, watching my mother, as the custodial parent, struggle every single day to not only feed her children, feed us physically, but to feed us mentally and spiritually. The confluence of all of those things made it really hard. 

And the pain. Especially around this time of year, I start to reflect on the pain that my mother had, and remember her crying herself to sleep at night because she didn't have enough money to buy all the gadgets for seven children.

My mother died at the age of 42. I was in my early twenties. I became the instant mother to six siblings, a baby myself, with a separate family myself. And I knew that I had to try to keep my family together. But we had nothing, because not only did my mother die young; she died on the system of welfare. So I understand what a safety net means. Although at times we didn't have food, we definitely wouldn't have had any food without that safety net.

So what I am saying to the movement is that everybody has a hope and a dream. And if you are poor, your hope and your dream is not to stay poor. Your hope and your dream is to be able to live a good life. And if you have children or other younger folks in your sphere that you care about, you want them to be able to do better than you. Almost every parent wants that. Every grandparent wants that.

I believe that my mother would be proud. And I also believe, because of my Christian upbringing in the Black church, that she is in heaven, and that she is proud. And I had the opportunity to become a cycle-breaker. I broke the cycle of poverty, and I broke the cycle of under-education, not just for me, but when my son walked across that stage, he became the second generation to do the same.

Because we are in this epic battle between predatory capitalism and everybody else, sometimes we look at wealth as something that is not to be aspired to. And I want to see the progressive movement separate the two. There is a difference between predatory capitalism — preying on people and making money without regard to who else loses — and wanting to be wealthy, wanting to be able to own a home, wanting to be able to take a vacation every now and then, wanting to be able to afford to send your children to college, wanting to be able to live a good life.

Those two things are different, and we have to start to peel back the layers and say, It is OK to own a company. There is a socially conscious way to own that company. It is OK to want to have more money when you die — or to live a little, because I want people to be able to do it while they're living — than when you started off.

ANAND: I was recently looking up how long you're supposed to keep your smoke detector before changing it, and it's ten years. And the reason I was looking that up was I was thinking about all these people in Congress and how long they stay in leadership roles. It is much longer than you're even supposed to keep your smoke detector. I'm wondering what you think about that problem of leadership that stays in so long, and whether it's something that, if you were in there, you would be on the side of pushing to change.

NINA: To quote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Longevity has its place." There is something about having people who have wisdom from times past. It is a beautiful thing. Unfortunately, in this American culture, we throw away our elders. I come from a culture that is rooted in respecting and reverencing and lifting up our elders. So I'm going to answer this in two ways:

I do agree with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that longevity has its place, and the wisdom that people can bring to bear is a beautiful thing. We can also balance that wisdom and that longevity with a spirit and new vision, the newness of not just a younger generation in terms of age, but a new way of seeing things. I can use Senator Sanders for an example. He's the oldest millennial we know. We would always joke about that on the campaign trail. His age doesn't preclude him from having a vision that sees things differently. 

Conversely, I've known younger people who don't have the capacity to be agile or have a vision and see things differently. So longevity has its place; experience has its place — and experience not just in years, but experience of different lives. And if we could bring all of those things to the table, I think that complements leadership.

ANAND: You come from a family of police officers.

NINA: I do.

ANAND: You are not unique but perhaps rare in articulating empathy for folks on both sides of this question of the police and Black communities. Can you talk about what you see with the multiple lenses that you have that maybe a lot of folks on both sides of this issue don't see?

NINA: I’m the wife of a retired police officer. Our son has walked in the footsteps of his dad and is in law enforcement right now. So I do understand a law enforcement family's fear of the day that their loved one might not come home, knowing that even sometimes a random traffic stop could cost a law enforcement officer their life. I definitely get that. 

On the other side of that, I also get, from lived experience, having my husband and my son get racially profiled in their lives. I get that, too. To have a millennial in law enforcement and all that he has had to grow up with and confront, I see it through multiple lenses. And being a Black mama and a Black wife does give me a unique perspective that not everybody has.

We also have to be very clear about what the Black community is really asking for, because, having served on the Cleveland City Council, I will tell you that in my community, the older generation, they wanted the police to come. They wanted the police to serve. But that's the key: protect and serve. Not rough up, not treat differently. Protect and serve.

ANAND: What do you think each side in this debate most misunderstands about the other?

NINA: We’ve got to come face-to-face with the truth, which is that, historically speaking, the law enforcement profession was never designed to protect and serve the Black community. Oftentimes in America, maybe this is the case for other nations, too, it's hard for us to come face-to-face with something that is not flattering about us. But the entire criminal justice system was not designed to advance justice for Black people. It was designed to keep Black people under control.

Law enforcement is a reflection of the larger society. We’ve got to understand the history of policing in this country, and also understand that we can write a new history.

Cultural competency is important, dealing with implicit biases is important, making sure law enforcement is trained is important. But there is something beyond training, because, as my husband reminds me all the time, "Baby, I got the same training my white colleagues got, and you don't see Black officers, by and large, gunning down unarmed white boys." And that is true. 

We have got to be clear and have a day of reckoning, truth and reconciliation in this country, that law enforcement as it exists has never been designed to protect and serve Black people in this country, and then other poor people by extension; that it is the entire criminal justice system that must be dealt with. And we must deal with that collectively, and then we absolutely must hold the people on the front lines to a very high standard when it comes to dealing with the Black community. When we solve that problem with the Black community, every other community is going to benefit.

ANAND: Last thing, an important issue, I’m going to put you on the spot. So the Cleveland Indians are finally going to be renamed. If you got a phone call saying, "You, Senator Nina Turner, can unilaterally rename them, but you’ve got to decide right now," what would you rename them?

NINA: Oh my God. Let me just say, I'm so glad. A long time coming to rename the team. Our Native Americans are not mascots. I'm so happy about it. OK, now, what would I rename them? Jesus.

ANAND: You can lock up the election right here.

NINA: I know. You know what's coming to mind? I'm just going to say it. Oh, God. Oh, Lord. I would name them the Cleveland Chargers.

ANAND: OK.

NINA: Oh, Jesus Christ. I am definitely not good at this.

ANAND: I love it!

NINA: It has an alliteration effect to it, though.


Nina Turner is a former Ohio state senator and a Democratic candidate in the 2021 special election for Ohio's 11th congressional district. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.


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Photo: The Washington Post/Getty