Nina Turner grew up poor, the oldest of seven children, raised by a single mother. She never forgot that history when she was elected to the Ohio state senate, where she helped defeat a bill that would have taken away the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers.
During Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, Turner became one of his chief spokespersons. And at the People’s Summit in Chicago last summer, she brought down the house with an impassioned speech about what the Sanders agenda means to her and to other people who are left behind and excluded.
Sarah van Gelder spoke to Turner in Seattle about the 2016 election season and what it means for the future of the Democratic Party.
Sarah van Gelder: In this election, the constituencies that normally fall into the Democratic and Republican camps were really mixed up because Bernie Sanders got a bunch of outsiders supporting him, but so did Donald Trump. How do you see this progressive coalition, or whatever it is, finding its soul again?
Nina Turner: Whether you’re on the left or the right, most Americans want to know that they’re electing people who actually give a shit about them. Not just about their next election, but that they really are going to get in there and push policies, and in some cases make sacrifices, even if it means losing their next election to get something done for the people.
The Republican convention was in my hometown of Cleveland, and I got a chance to talk to some of the Trump supporters. And guess what? They pretty much want the same things that I hear people in Lee-Harvard, in my community, want. They want a good job so that they can make a good living. They want to take a vacation every now and then, to buy a car now and then. If they have children, they want to know that their children will have a better future than they had.
That’s not Republican or Democratic or Green Party or Libertarian or Black or White or Hispanic or Native American or Asian. That is American!
All Americans want that. People want to live a good life.
van Gelder: And there’s also been a way in which Trump has used race to divide people and to create a sense of an in-group that is entitled to something different …
Turner: But it didn’t start with him. Mr. Trump is responsible for the things that he has said. And he has to be held accountable because he is running for the president of the United States.
That being said, I think it’s easy for people to point their finger at him. And that way we don’t have to deal with the deep-seated issues in this country, one of which is this: Racism is in the DNA of America. It didn’t start with Mr. Trump, and it’s not going to end with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump likes to talk a lot about law and order, but you can’t have law and order without justice and transparency and accountability and empathy and love and respect. The Black community in this country is not asking for more than what they deserve to have, which is to have law enforcement officers mete out justice with accountability and transparency and respect.
I understand it from both sides: I’m a mother of a police officer, and my husband is a former police officer. As a wife who worried about whether my husband was going to come home safe, I get it. The same thing with my millennial son, who took the oath of office and does wear a badge and a gun, who I worry about when he’s in uniform and when he’s not in uniform.
So we have to have a leader who understands all those things and is willing to bridge the divide. And you know one president can’t do it alone. That’s where we come back to the citizen leaders, who really can make the bigger difference in their communities. Because if we wait for it to come from on high from Washington, it is not coming fast enough or deep enough.
van Gelder: There was a rumor that the Democratic Party disinvited you to introduce, or to nominate, Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention.
Turner: It’s true.
van Gelder: The Democratic Party was kind of shattered by what happened with Sanders. The Republican Party has been shattered by the election, too. So where do you see a coming-together?
Turner: You know it was very disappointing, and that’s putting it lightly. But it is not going to stop me. Hundreds of supporters got together right there that next day after that happened: grassroots Sanders supporters, the National Nurses Association, and actors like Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover, and Rosario Dawson. They had my back. It was a powerful thing.
In terms of where we go from here, if I can paraphrase James Baldwin, I love this country more than any other country on the face of this Earth. And because of my love for this country, I reserve the right to critique her. That can be true for the United States of America, and it can be true for the party I love.
I love the value proposition of the Democratic Party. We have always stood for social justice, for voting rights and other things that promote and push us toward a more perfect union. And because I love the value proposition of this party, and because I have been up until this point a lifelong Democrat, I reserve the right to critique this party.
van Gelder: But can you save it?
Turner: Not by myself. It’s a heavy, heavy lift. I’m hoping that other progressives—you know, “progressive” is popular now so everyone wants to be one—and people of good conscience feel the same way about this party. I’m not going to allow anyone to run me away; I’m going to stay here as long as I want. And I reserve the right to critique it and to fight like hell for it to live up to all of those values and principles that we hold dear. Not by myself I can’t. But with some citizen leaders, we can get it done.