'Delayed doesn’t mean denied, and the only way we will be denied is if people give up'

A conversation with former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner

Nina Turner gained national attention throughout the Democratic presidential primary, as a top surrogate of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The former Ohio state Senator, and 2014 candidate for Secretary of State has continued to campaign for progressive causes, and was considered for the vice presidential slot on the Green Party ticket before ultimately declining the overtures to leave the Democrats. 

"I love the Democratic Party and what it stands for, not individuals that have flaws, not individuals that manipulate the party system for their advantage, at the disadvantage of other people — which we saw happen in the primary — but because I love and believe in this party, I reserve the right to critique it, and I am going to critique it from the inside," she said, alluding to the words of novelist and activist James Baldwin. 

Turner was in Seattle on Thursday for a keynote address in support of Washington's Initiative 735. The Queen Anne & Magnolia News sat down with her at the Yes on 735 campaign office before her speech, to discuss her support of the push to make Washington the 18th state to ask Congress to overturn Citizens United, and on the status of the progressive movement in America.


We’ll start with the reason for your visit, Initiative 735. Why do you support this measure?

Turner: I think it’s so important to get money out, big money out of politics and put the elections and the influence back in the hands of everyday people. Really proud of Washington State, similarly your sister state, California, has a similar initiative on the ballot. There’ve been about 17 other  states who have done similar to what Washington is doing, either by initiative or by resolutions passing the legislature but this really does affirm and it says to the congressional members of Washington state that this state, if it passes, wants them involved in a constitutional amendment that will take big money out of politics. Money is not speech is basically what this initiative is saying.


And you look at some of the other legislation to pass in Seattle — the $15 minimum wage, more recently secure scheduling — do you think this region is an example to other parts of the country on progressive policy?

Turner: Yeah, you guys are so progressive,e I just absolutely adore Washington state and you are leading the nation, along with California, I have to throw Cali in there, but big ups to Washington state in terms of the progressive movement in this country. And you know, just to even drill down more for people to understand why it’s important to pass initiatives like this. Everyday people should be able to run for these offices and not feel that they have to raise thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, to millions, to billions of dollars even — look at the presidential election — it is turning out that if you don’t have a lot of money, or if you’re not heavily connected to people with money, you’re going to be priced out of being able to run for office and slowly but surely this republic of ours is going to turn into an oligarchy or plutocracy, and we have to do everything in our power to prevent that, and I-735 is just the beginning of that, 17 states, hopefully we can pass issues or get legislatures to pass resolutions like this all over the country, force Congress to act, and then come back to the states to get it ratified and hopefully get the 28th Amendment to the Constitution which says, ‘Money is not speech.”


You were a prominent Bernie Sanders surrogate during the Democratic primary. He didn’t win, but do you think the national political conversation has shifted further to the left because of his candidacy?

Turner: Absolutely. Senator Bernie Sanders ran the most important, impactful insurgency campaign of the 21st century, some people argue in history and maybe that’s true too. But he has definitely awakened the sleeping giants. He caused people to believe that the impossible could be possible, and I think that’s another reason why initiatives like 735 and others are percolating to the top. He said that millionaires and billionaires can’t have it all, he awakened the millennial, your generation, who overwhelmingly, across ethnicities, supported Senator Bernie Sanders, and I point to millennials, not just because you are one, but I think the fact that the millennial generation in their support for Senator Sanders was saying to America, “This is the kind of world we want. We want a world with universal health care. We want a world where colleges and universities are tuition free. We want a world where we deal with income and wealth inequality. We want a world where we have real criminal justice reform.” In that, the millennial generation is going to inherit whatever future we create today, will be your future tomorrow, and so if the establishment Democrats and establishment types of this country can take back anything, it is that the millennial generation believes in what Robert Browning once said, and he said, “Man’s reach should always exceed his grasp,” and that was one of the most exciting things about being a prominent surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders, is seeing so many millennials, and other people who have never been engaged in the political process who were not necessarily traditional Democrats but they were piqued and inspired by a 74-year old Democratic Socialist who dared to get in the arena, as president Teddy Roosevelt once said, and you know what else? Besides the millennials, I think for more seasoned people in this country that he let them know too, through his running, that you can wake up one day at the age of 74 years old and decide that you want to run for president. That age is really nothing but a number. And I say that, I got a chance to meet an elder, and I wish I could remember her name but I know she was in her 80s. Senator Sanders and I were in New York about a month and a half ago at the Working Families Party event, and she came up to me and she said, “Senator Turner, I ran for office for the very first time,” and she was in her 80s. In that way, his run has inspired so many people across generations.


How do you get people to channel that passion toward a candidate toward a progressive movement or particular issues?

Turner: Well, we’re doing it right now. It is my hope that Initiative 735 will pass in Washington state. The other issues that are important to people, hopefully this is an example. Senator Sanders always aid that he couldn’t do it alone, that it wasn’t about him, it was about us, and in that way we have progressive organizations cropping up all over the country. In my home state of Ohio, for example, we have an organization in my county called Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus. Now that caucus did not exist prior to Senator Sanders’ run. So that’s just one example. Our Revolution, the Senator’s organization — of which I am on the board — but now you have Ohio Revolution and other little grassroots organizations that have started because Senator Sanders dared to run. If he did not run, and inspire people in that way, we wouldn’t see so many grassroots organizations, so I think that’s a very real example how people are taking to heart what he said, that the political revolution is real and it didn’t end just because he didn’t win the Democratic nomination, that we have to continue to push and fight and scrap for the type of America that we want.


But what do you tell people that were disenfranchised by this election cycle and the ultimate result, and those who say they might not vote at all come November?

Turner: And I’ve talked to some of those people, and I want them to never give up. Senator Sanders lit the match, but it’s our job to keep the fire burning, and if you don’t vote, then you abdicate the responsibility to the people who do vote, like you’ve just given up. You can be mad and vote at the same time. Be mad as hell, but go vote. As one of my friends says, that you know President Obama always says, “Don’t boo, vote,” well my friend says, “You can boo and vote,” so I want people to take whatever energy, whatever anxiety, whatever disappointment that they have, into the ballot box, and for them not to forget that this is not just about the presidential election, but it’s about people who are running for Congress, both in the House and the Senate. It’s about people running for state legislatures, both in the house and the Senate on the state levels. It’s about people who are running for school board or mayor or city councilperson, that even though they’re frustrated they may be frustrated and disappointed and upset, especially with all the WikiLeaks, and all the revelations, especially for the Berniecrats, that the system in fact was skewed. I might not necessarily use the word “rigged,” — not in the same way Mr. Trump uses it — but that in fact things were not fair, and I do acknowledge that they have a right to be mad, but we cannot stop, we can’t stop pushing, and we will never get to the more perfect union that we have to fight for generation after generation, if people only get mad and go home or stay home. I want people to be mad as hell, but I want them to come out and vote. I want people to be mad as hell, but I want them to run for office. I want people to be mad as hell, but I want them to lift their voices so that … let me put it this way: Delayed doesn’t mean denied, and the only way we will be denied is if people give up, so I don’t want anybody to give up.


In August, Jill Stein offered you the VP slot on her presidential ticket, and you declined. Why that decision?

Turner: I did. I am very honored. Dr. Stein is an honorable woman, contrary to what some of the haters out there are saying. I have respect for anybody that dares to get into this space, especially when they’re not well connected, and I respect her, and I respect the Green Party. But as I reflected, and it was really a quick turnaround, I just reflected, and even though I’m very frustrated with my party at times, I am a lifelong Democrat because of the value proposition of social justice and the things that we stand for, and I just decided that I was going to stay in my party and raise hell, and that’s what I plan to do. I’ve created my own wing, my new wing of the Democratic Party, called the Shirley Chisholm, Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party: Unbought, mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore. I just decided to stay because I do want to fight within the party, I still believe in this party, and if I can take a page out of James Baldwin, which I’m sure you heard of him, the American novelist and activist and he wrote books that really pierced our soul — “The Fire Next Time” is coming first to mind — but when James Baldwin had to answer a question about why he critiqued America, and I’m just paraphrasing him, but he said, “I love this country more than any other country on the face of the Earth, and because of my love for this country, I reserve the right to critique it,” and so I feel that same way about the Democratic Party. I love the Democratic Party and what it stands for, not individuals that have flaws, not individuals that manipulate the party system for their advantage, at the disadvantage of other people, which we saw happen in the primary, but because I love and believe in this party, I reserve the right to critique it, and I am going to critique it from the inside. I’m going to be there. I’m not going to make it easy for establishment Democrats. They can run, but they can’t hide. So I decided to stay a Democrat, but ultimately I have nothing but great respect for Dr. Stein and the Green Party. And other, we have the Libertarians, and others, that’s what America is about. I’m most disappointed when you have elected officials tell people that they shouldn’t vote for, or try to shame people into voting a certain away. This is America, so we compete. We believe in voice, and we believe in choice. And so for me as a leader in that space … It’s my job to convince people to go a certain way, through my works and my words, not to bully them or shame them into going a certain way. The variety of choice, while we are still solidly a two-party nation, but I think 2016 is again pierced people so that the two major parties need to be shaken up, and they need to know that they can’t take their voters for granted, and that’s what I think the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, they have the capacity to do, to the two major parties is shake those parties up and not allow them to take their voters for granted.


Where do you think the Democratic party and the progressive movement as a whole goes from this point forward.

Turner: We have a very solid, the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party. To me that’s the starting point. That should Secretary Clinton win, and all the other Democrats that win, there’s a strong likelihood that the Democrats can take the Senate because of the implosion of Mr. Trump, that progressives and other Democrats need to hold our elected leaders accountable to that platform. There’ve been too many elections where presidential candidates in particular, they never adhere to the platform. It’s just nice words, it’s not binding. But I think this presidential cycle, the platform will be binding. So our platform is a great foundation for every Democrat, whether they’re progressive or not, to start from and embrace that platform, and then make sure those people who are elected to office are held accountable to the things that are in that platform, like universal health care, like a $15 minimum wage, thank god for Washington state you were very much ahead of the time, like the decriminalization of marijuana, taking it off the schedule 1 with heroin and giving people who may have that kind of minor transgression an opportunity to regain their lives and not have their lives torn asunder because they had marijuana. Those are the kind of things that are in that platform, and we have to fight for those. It doesn’t really embrace all of what Senator Sanders wanted to do on the tuition, but it does give working class families a fighting chance to send their children to college and not have the entire family saddled with debt for generations.


And we’ve talked a lot about the issues, the broad issues, but we’ll end on the individual. Where do you go from here, and will we see your name on the ballot sometime soon?

Turner: You might. I’m not sure what I want to be when I grow up, I’m still trying to figure that out. There are many people who want to see me back in that elected space, and I’m giving it lots of thought. I’m not sure what yet, statewide elections in Ohio are in 2018, and that’s not that far away, so I have some things to consider. I ran for Secretary of State in 2014 against a Republican incumbent who did everything in his power to suppress the vote, but it’s very hard to run against an incumbent, and the Democrats in my state, as in most states, and your readers might not necessarily know this, but have never elected an African-American statewide. Very few states have. There are only two African-American women right now elected statewide in the United States of America. There’s never been an African-American governor. Can you imagine that? There’s only been one African-American woman to make it to the Senate, that’s the honorable Carol Moseley Braun from Illinois. There hasn’t been one since, though I think Attorney General Kamala Harris has a very good chance in California. I give all those examples to say that we have so much work to do in this country in terms of leveling the playing field, and I am depending, demanding that Democrats in particular, not absolving Republicans from their responsibility too, because I want to see African-Americans run in that party too, but particularly Democrats because African-Americans vote over 90 percent of the time with the Democrats, so we’ve got lots of work to do, so whether I am formally in elected office or I am forever considered the honorable Nina Turner, I am going to continue to use my cache and my voice in the political sphere on the progressive side to shake things up everywhere I go. 


For more information on the Yes on 735 campaign, visit www.wamend.org. To learn more about Turner, go to www.ninaturner.org.