Audra Heinrichs is a former Bernie Sanders staffer.
In 2019, “with these hands” became an overnight rallying cry for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). That was thanks to former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, Sanders’s campaign co-chair. Recognized by supporters for delivering some of the most memorable, “sermonlike” speeches of the campaign, the Cleveland native has a tendency to speak with the panache of a preacher, gradually ramping up and punctuating her message with raised arms or pointed fingers as if they were bodily exclamation points.
“With these hands we will combat climate chaos. With these hands we will do something about income inequality and wealth inequality,” Turner proclaimed to more than 25,000 people at a Sanders 2019 rally in Queens.
Now, amid a pandemic and as the country reckons with racial injustice, some progressives in Ohio are hoping it’s Turner’s hands that will carry what once was considered a swing state back to its former standing.
In December of last year, when Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) was first reported to be President Biden’s nominee for Housing and Urban Development secretary, Turner announced her candidacy for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District to replace Fudge. As of now, five candidates have entered the race for the Democratic primary — and more are likely to declare ahead of the highly anticipated special election, which has yet to be scheduled by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) and will not happen until after Fudge is confirmed by the Senate. The district, which includes Cleveland, is solidly blue; it went for Biden over Trump by a 4:1 margin.
“For me, this is a ministry to lift up the issues that will change people's material conditions,” Turner said of her congressional run. “And not just any people — people who need it the most: the poor, the working poor and the barely middle class.”
In both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, Ohio overwhelmingly supported President Trump, with 59 percent of men and 48 percent of women reporting that they voted in favor of a second Trump term in 2020. Unlike other Midwest states like Michigan and Wisconsin, union support was also squarely with Trump, which some experts say signifies evidence of a distrust of establishment politics among the state’s working class. While Democrats’ battle for Ohio to become less red has raged for decades, a divide has emerged between centrist Democrats and progressives in the state — not unlike the larger debate in the national party, which was put on display in the Democratic presidential primary as Biden and Sanders emerged as figureheads of each wing.
Turner represents just one of many women of color who are working toward more progressive leadership. As it is with many states throughout the country, Black women aren’t just reliable voters; they’re also behind much of the impactful organizing and campaigning.
“I think there is potential for progressives in the state,” said Susan Burgess, a distinguished professor of political science at Ohio University. “The political culture of the so-called Rust Belt states is shifting. They’re not a cohesive unit in the way that they used to be, and that’s characteristic of a realigning time.”
Some Ohio strategists have pitted Shontel Brown, Cuyahoga County Councilwoman and chair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, against Turner as frontrunners. As outlets have reported, Brown, a more center-left alternative to Turner, is considered a mentee of Rep. Fudge, and could get her official endorsement. In recent years, Fudge, who is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and who has long championed expanding access to food stamps and eliminating food insecurity, has shown to be an ally to some members of the establishment, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Fudge has held the seat since 2008, and could now be replaced by another Black woman in a district that is 53 percent Black.
Recently, Turner has been garnering attention for her fundraising. As ABC News 5 reports, as of January, Turner’s campaign said it had raised more than $1 million with “tens of thousands of small dollar donations from across the country,” and nearly 2,000 donors in her home state.
Endorsements are continuing to grow for Turner, notably from Justice Democrats, a PAC that helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in 2018 and freshman Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) in 2020. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Sen. Sanders have all endorsed Turner, too. But name recognition alone would probably bear significance for Turner, who is remembered in Ohio for years of championing policy to benefit working-class families and strongly advocating for those suffering from the state’s current rape custody law.
As Burgess put it: “Turner commands national media attention. It’s not just the fundraising. She has been able to get herself a national platform.”
But given a shake-up within the Ohio Democratic Party — more than half its staff was laid off last month — many progressives believe establishment politics aren’t necessarily the path to success. The Ohio Democratic Party declined requests for comment, but late last month, party chair Liz Walters said the layoffs were a result of a “realignment of strategy and structure.”
Some women of color are turning elsewhere. The Ohio Women’s Alliance (OWA), a coalition of grass-roots leaders, organizers, community builders and activists, cultivates leadership among young women of color in the state. In the lead-up to the election, the group reported that it had engaged with 1.2 million people across the overwhelmingly White state, with an emphasis on reaching women, young people and families of color.
Jasmine Henderson, a leading organizer for the OWA and longtime activist from Dayton, said that if people in power in Ohio want to ensure a more progressive future, there has never been a better time than the present.
“I think this pandemic and the recent racial uprising has given people more power to look more introspectively about how they should take up space in the political landscape and also to understand that it’s their right to do so,” Henderson said. “Over half of the state population is women. That means the future of progressive politics, quite squarely, runs through Ohio.”
However, progressives don’t exactly have a promising track record in Ohio — especially when their opponent is an incumbent Democrat. Morgan Harper, a 37-year-old lawyer and activist from Columbus, found that out last year, when she ran against four-term congresswoman Rep. Joyce Beatty (D) for her seat in the state’s 3rd Congressional District. When Harper’s grass-roots campaign garnered national interest (including by getting an endorsement from Justice Democrats), some wondered if it was Ohio’s turn for an emerging progressive like Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Omar.
“Ohio is a place that's full of really hard-working people, people that believe right is right, wrong is wrong and that if you put in a full day’s work, you should be able to at least be okay,” Harper said. “It doesn't mean you get to be rich, but it should mean you’re not going to die from medical bills, which is why — I think — our campaign got so much momentum.”
Even still, it wasn’t enough for Harper, who lost to the establishment-backed Beatty. While many would argue that candidates like Beatty, who are typically upheld by a combination of name recognition and state party support, are more favorable in congressional elections, Turner and Harper themselves have said the term “progressive” might be part of the problem.
“If we actually defined progressive as the idea that you put in the work, you should be okay, then people living here are progressive,” Harper said. “That’s what this state is about.”
Burgess agreed, citing the recent Senate election in Georgia and organizers like Stacey Abrams and their lack of emphasis on the label “progressive” while relying on more issue-based signifiers to win.
“Progressive [tenets] were traditionally part of the New Deal coalition of Democrats and Reaganites successfully pulled those people away into the Republican Party,” she said. “To turn Ohio blue, there needs to be a focus on specific kitchen table issues of that sort.”
Since the end of her campaign, Harper dedicated herself to co-founding Columbus Stand Up, an organization that provides direct services to families in need, mobilizes politically engaged people throughout Central Ohio and works in tandem with the OWA. “This is a movement, and movements have to keep going no matter what the outcome of a specific race, so that’s what we need to happen all over the state if we’re going to win,” she said.
Burgess, not unlike others closely watching Turner’s race, considers it a test of whether a state like Ohio is ready for a progressive representative. Should she lose, very little evidence would be necessary to prove the staying power of establishment. But should she win, it might just be enough to restore Ohio to bellwether status in the Rust Belt.
Turner herself is trying to make the case that her brand of politics is what the state needs. “Ohioans are rugged. We are determined. And we feel deeply,” she said. “What greater testing ground could there be in this country than the great state of Ohio?”