This is an exclusive in-depth interview that Journalist Walter Yeates conducted with Former Ohio State Senator, Senator Bernie Sanders surrogate, and current Our Revolution Board Member, Nina Turner.
Early Career in Public Service
“What you are seeking is seeking you” — a popular quote Turner mentioned spur-of-the-moment when asked what motivated her to run for office. “I never saw myself running for office, but as my life began to unfold and I had different exposure, I saw the power of public policy and what strong, committed people, especially strong personalities, could really do with the bully pulpit — to both push policy and make a difference in the lives of individuals.”
Turner served in the cabinet of Cleveland Mayor, Michael R. White, in 1999 and was the Director of Government Affairs for the Cleveland Municipal School District shortly thereafter. In 2001, Turner made an unsuccessful run for the Cleveland City Council, yet would later win her second bid for the city council in 2005.
Her time in office and her life experiences played a key role in molding her worldview and developing her political philosophy.
Turner’s Thoughts on Education
“In some ways, I feel like I’ve been a public servant all of my life,” stated former State Senator Nina Turner, affectionately looking back on her past. Turner, being the eldest child of seven, took on a number of responsibilities after her mother’s unexpected passing at the age of forty-two while Turner was a Sophomore at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio.
I was just struggling, I was a wife, mother, and now all of a sudden I have six other people to be responsible for — with no money. So, it was really that moment, Walter, I had an epiphany, if you will, that I was going to do my level best to finish college myself and to go on to a four-year university, and to get my college degree for my mother’s memory, even though she wasn’t here to see any of that, I wanted to make her proud even in death.
When asked what makes her so passionate about the importance of education, Turner continued:
[My situation] gave me a sensitivity to the plight of poor people because I did grow up in a working class family, but we were very poor and it made me really sensitive. Because education helped change my life, I do believe if people have the opportunity, that education can do the same thing for them and help more [people] become cycle breakers. That gave me my heart connection to education.
When asked her opinions on how the United States can solve the challenges currently facing the education system, she thoughtfully replied:
I think that the system of education is not necessarily in tune with the needs of the 21st-century learner, that in some ways we do not [in traditional public schools] have the ability to be as creative as necessary to deal with the needs and, in some cases, the trauma that so many of our young people have to deal with at a very young age.
Turner later detailed exactly how she would like to see the United States approach education in the modern world:
I would love to see a public-private commitment, a renaissance if you will, for K-12 education and also for us to adopt [as a nation] a K-16 model because we know in the 21st-century these young people need more than a high school diploma to compete with their peers from all over the world. If we are going to keep our competitive edge as a nation we will have to take a deep look into this and also move into action at the federal, state, and local level.
Importance of After School Programs and the Community
Nina Turner continued, “We need more wraparound services in these schools,” which are systems that provide social workers, nurses, healthcare, make sure children have extracurricular activities, and ensure children have decent meals at school and their homes. Turner acknowledged that while these services may seem like an unfair burden, that it is important children have an environment in which they can thrive.
“We have to make sure we don’t cut art and sports programs,” Turner began, before explaining how cutting extracurricular activities for children affected her family.
That happened to one of my nephews, who went to a school in a suburban community in Cleveland, [his mom] my sister had to pay a fee for him to be able to participate in extra circular activities, and she is a single mom and that was a burden on her. But if you take away extra circular activities so many young people wouldn’t even come to school.
[…] We do have to decide as a nation whether or not we are going to invest dollars, but also invest concentration, in our effort to create the types of programming that help our children overcome [any] challenges they may have at home or any challenges they may have in the community.”
Turner continued, “That’s not only urban areas — that’s also our rural communities too — so many are fighting this opiate crisis, so it may not be guns and violence, but they are fighting a different kind of crisis.” She finished her thought by saying, “I’m not so sure our commitment as a nation is really keeping pace with the needs of our young people [who], through no fault of their own, may have been born to a family, or born to a community, that they need to succeed are really not there and the only hope that they have is education.”
Becoming A Bernie Sanders Surrogate
“The Sanders campaign approached me,” Turner shared after being asked how she became a surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders’s (VT-I) Presidential campaign. “It really was my husband who encouraged me to take a deeper look,” she added. While Turner was aware of Senator Sanders for quite some time, there was a specific action by Sanders that stood out to her. “He really, really came to my attention when he did the filibuster against the Bush tax cut for eight and a half hours.”
Turner reaffirmed her admiration for Senator Sanders by praising his filibuster, “I’m saying, ‘Wow, this man is deep!’ and has a lot of heart.” Turner again credited her husband with her taking a closer look at Sanders as the 2016 Democratic Presidential nomination geared up. “This guy has the same righteous indignation that you have,” was the comment from him which led her to take a deeper dive into the history of Senator Sanders.
“He really did touch my heart,” was Turner’s reaction after meeting with Sanders for the first time. She was moved by him pushing for universal healthcare, standing up for young people saddled with college loan debt, closing the income wage disparity, and wanting to remove corporate money from the political sector. Turner credits those issues for her moving to endorse Sanders and becoming a national surrogate.
“I think my coming out was, if I remember correctly, was on November 13, 2015, when the Senator came to Cleveland and he spoke at my Alma Mater, Cleveland State University and I had the chance to introduce him at that event,” Turner reflected back on when she first joined the campaign.
When asked if it was a shock for her to become a national figure, she responded, “It is a big shock to me, and I’m very humbled by that.” She continued, “I think the same authenticity that this nation saw in Senator Sanders — they saw in me.”
The Senator has what I call ‘heart-soul agreement’ and I went all across this country talking about it. We are, in many ways, cut from the same cloth in that regard, because I stand up for what I believe in and I stand up for people even when it’s not popular. I get myself in a lot of trouble politically doing that, but I can sleep at night.
Turner was candid when speaking about why she felt connected with Sanders and why so many gravitated to his message:
The American people learned that there was a candidate out there, that for the last fifty years has been singing the same song, talking about the same message which is wealth and income inequality. He was saying to the American people that I can’t do this without you and we need a political revolution in this country so that the everyday voices are not drowned out.
Turned concluded by saying that Sanders knew he could not bring about change alone, but he reminded voters that they have power in the political process.
Life After the Campaign and Future of the Democratic Party
Turner’s response when asked her thoughts and emotions concerning not being allowed to put Senator Sanders up for nomination at the Democratic National Convention:
I got a call from Senator Sanders saying that he would like Tulsi [Gabbard] to put my name in nomination was an honor – then at the last minute to be stood up like a bride at the altar and told it wasn’t going to be allowed to happen, because the Clinton campaign didn’t want it….It was hurtful, it was like a punch in the gut, it was surreal.
Again Turner became candid when asked about the state of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the race for DNC Chairman, which saw Tony Perez narrowly defeat House Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), stating that she was, “disappointed” with the current state of the DNC and how Ellison was framed as an anti-Semite during campaign for DNC Chair. Turner directly stated that she was, “Sick to her stomach,” with how Ellison a black Muslim was framed.
She continued, “You should do everything to win, not anything to win,” when commenting on the situation. When asked about the direction of the Democratic Party Turner commented, “What are we willing to sacrifice for?” Continuing, “Senator Sanders is more of a Democrat than most of the Democrats in Congress, akin to FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States].”
“Every single damn Democrat should have been on board with Medicare for All, yesterday.” Turner passionately explained when asked about Senator Sanders proposal and plans to ensure every single American receives healthcare.
Turner explained that value propositions mean more than having the label “D” associated with a politician’s name. “That’s why he [Bernie Sanders] is the most popular federal official in the country right now.”
Turner likened Senator Sanders’ ideals to those of Former Congresswoman and the first black woman elected to the United States Congress, Shirley Chisholm (D-NY). “Senator Sanders is also akin to Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm who stood up for people who didn’t have a voice.” Adding, “People are tired of the corporatists, that’s why 2016 went the way it did. If Senator Sanders was the nominee we would have won.”
She gave a strong response when asked if she felt grassroots organizations like Our Revolution and Justice Democrats have a chance to shape the Democratic Party, “I feel that organizations like Our Revolution have a chance to not just shape the Democratic Party, but American itself.”
Turner Comments On Her Future
Turner stated she wants us to look forward to the future and not just the past by giving a three step plan, “Push and Breathe, Protest and Plan, Persevere,” and that she wants to ensure that elections are won to help pass progressive policies.
When asked if she intends to run for Ohio Governor in 2018, Turner stated that she had not reached a decision. However, she stated that she will continue to be a strong voice fighting for social justice, environmental justice, and will always be a fighter for the people, and use her position in politics to make people’s lives better.