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Bernie Sanders ally Nina Turner seeks rematch with Rep. Shontel Brown in Ohio

The 2021 special primary election between Brown and Turner was a nasty and expensive ideological fight for Democrats.
Image: Nina Turner Campaigns Ahead Of Special Democratic Primary In Ohio's 11th Congressional District
Congressional candidate Nina Turner speaks during a get-out-the-vote rally in Cleveland on July 31.Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images file

CLEVELAND — Nina Turner, the progressive activist with close ties to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is mounting another campaign for Congress in Ohio.

The former state senator from the Cleveland area told NBC News this week that she wants a rematch with Rep. Shontel Brown, who beat Turner last year in a Democratic primary.

“The same environment that motivated me to run before motivates me to run again,” Turner, who co-chaired Sanders’ 2020 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, said in a telephone interview. “The environment by which change needs to happen has not really percolated at this moment. I think that it's one thing for somebody to go and to vote the right way. But Greater Cleveland needs a fighter, and that's that's what I am.”

Brown beat Turner decisively in the special primary and easily won the general election to succeed Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge in the overwhelmingly Democratic 11th Congressional District. The race, one of few on the ballot last year, was an ideological battle that attracted an influx of national attention and money, fueled in large part by Turner’s willingness to antagonize the Democratic establishment. Brown ran as a reliable backer of President Joe Biden.

Turner said her decision to run again was not based on Brown’s record so far.

“I believe that I was the better candidate in 2021,” Turner said. “And that has not changed.”

Turner added that she sees an opportunity to make her case to new voters this year. Turnout is likely to be higher in a midterm election year. And the 11th District boundaries are expected to include more of the city of Cleveland under a redistricting plan that is still being hashed out after the Ohio Supreme Court rejected a Republican-drawn map seen as too partisan.

She said she also believes the race will be less nationalized this time. Last year, for example, the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Cleveland airwaves, including an ad that emphasized the time Turner equated voting for Biden to eating fecal matter.

The district, in addition to being a majority-Black district, also includes a sizable Jewish population. Turner, in her concession speech, decried the influence of “evil money” — a remark some Jewish leaders found to play into antisemitic stereotypes. Turner campaign officials said at the time that the comment was directed at Republicans who donated to anti-Turner efforts.

“There was an anybody-but-Nina campaign ran in 2021,” Turner said this week. “Some of those forces may still decide to get into this race, but what they will not be able to do is totally concentrate [on the Ohio 11th District] because this will not be the only race.”

Turner has said she would align herself ideologically with members of “the squad,” a group of progressive House Democrats that includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Biden’s declining approval numbers, she said, reflect a desire for more action.

“There is a need for people to both lift the president's agenda when they agree with that agenda but also in that same motion push for more,” Turner added. “I don't see those things as mutually exclusive — even though people want to make it mutually exclusive.”

Despite the nationalized tenor last year, Turner’s complicated relationships inside Cleveland’s Black political establishment also factored into that campaign and could again this year. Turner was one of the few Black officials to support a successful 2009 ballot measure to address corruption in Cuyahoga County government, drawing the ire of the city’s Black newspaper and power brokers close to Fudge. She later launched a brief primary campaign against Fudge. Though she eventually became a top official in the Ohio Democratic Party, Turner stunned the establishment again in 2015 when, after initially promoting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, she jumped to Sanders, whose campaign boosted her national profile.

Brown, meanwhile, served on the Cuyahoga County Council created by the measure Turner backed and, with Fudge’s mentorship, became chair of the county’s Democratic Party.

"I'm not new to having to fight against certain people in my own party — and I say 'my,'" Turner said. "But I am standing up for the democratic principles or at least the values that we purport to believe in. So if wanting people to have a better quality of life is wrong, I don't want to be right."

Brown addressed the possibility of a Turner rematch in a recent interview with Jewish Insider.

“We prepare for the worst,” Brown said, “and hope for the best, right?”