The special election in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District has become one of the Biden era’s first campaign trail skirmish between the far-left and establishment Democrats.
The Democratic primary race so far is dominated by an up-and-coming county official, Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown, and a well-known progressive, former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner who was a top official in both of Sen. Bernard Sanders’ presidential campaigns.
The significance of the showdown is evidenced by the range of national groups and individuals that have waded into the race for the 11th District, a Democratic stronghold that includes the majority Black communities between Cleveland and Akron.
The battle lines revive the split in the Democratic Party from 2016 when the far-left Mr. Sanders challenged establishment favorite Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination. This time the Sanders forces are backing Ms. Turner and the Clinton camp is behind Ms. Brown.
Mrs. Turner told The Washington Times that she does not buy into all the hype surrounding her candidacy or what it means for factions within the Democratic Party. Instead, she says the contest is about the future of the people of the 11th Congressional District.
“I am running to change the material conditions of the people in my community, and I am fighting very hard to get my message out and to make sure that people understand that when I get there, they are my primary concern,” Mrs. Turner said.
Mr. Sanders, along with a cadre of progressive elected officials and groups such as Justice Democrats — the political group that launched the career of Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — is backing Mrs. Turner.
“She deeply cares for working families, and she has the heart to be an effective, unwavering fighter for them in Congress,” Mr. Sanders said when making his endorsement.
More moderate elements of the Democratic Party’s establishment, including Mrs. Clinton, have backed Ms. Brown.
“Shontel made history as the first Black woman to chair her county [Democratic] Party, and she‘ll work to help her state and our country recover from COVID,” Mrs. Clinton said when issuing her endorsement.
Ms. Brown is a protege of the district’s former congresswoman, Marcia Fudge, who resigned in March to become President Biden’s secretary of housing and urban development.
She’s also seen as a trusted political operator in northeastern Ohio. That image is burnished by her chairmanship of the Democratic Committee of Cuyahoga County, which includes the city of Cleveland. The perch is immensely powerful as the county is one of Ohio’s most Democratic and vital for any member of the party to win in statewide races.
The Aug. 3 primary so far includes 13 candidates from across the political spectrum.
To date, the race has focused on kitchen table issues, such as health care, the economy and jobs. Although both candidates can credibly claim the progressive mantle, factional divides are not far away from the surface.
Both Ms. Brown and Mrs. Turner, for instance, support the Green New Deal as a means to address climate change and create jobs. Both candidates have also called for student loan forgiveness as well broader efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
The candidates, however, differ when it comes to how far to expand health care. Mrs. Turner is an avowed backer of Medicare for All, arguing that health care is a human right.
“In Ohio, one million people lost their employer-sponsored health care during the pandemic,” Mrs. Turner told The Washington Times. “One million and millions more are uninsured. And so, especially now since we are trying to [combat] COVID, this is the best opportunity because we know for sure now that the commodification of health care does not work.”
Ms. Brown, on the other hand, has stopped short of full-out calling for Medicare for All. Instead, she’s signaled support for a public-health care option much like that supported by President Biden during the 2020 Democratic primaries.
“I certainly would be in favor of Medicare for all if it came on the floor, but I do believe the most likely way and most immediate way to reduce health care cost is the plan the Biden-Harris administration has proposed,” Ms. Brown told The Plain Dealer in a recent interview.
The two candidates also have differing views on foreign policy, especially when it comes to Israel. While both support a two-state solution, Ms. Brown has defended Israel for its role in the recent fighting that has broken out in the Gaza Strip.
The stance has clinched Ms. Brown the endorsement of the Democratic Majority for Israel, a political advocacy group that seeks to foster broader ties between the Middle-Eastern democracy and the Democratic Party.
“Councilwoman Brown is an effective leader who’ll work tirelessly for her district and to advance the Democratic agenda, including strong support for the U.S.-Israel relationship,” the group said.
Mrs. Turner has taken a more nuanced, although some say antagonistic approach, to Israel. More often than not, Mrs. Turner refers to Israel as a vital partner for the U.S., but one that needs more “accountability” when it comes to Palestine. As such, Mrs. Turner has called for conditioning aid to Israel.
For some, the contest is just as much about style as substance. Ms. Brown, because of her longstanding ties to the Democratic Party, is seen by moderates as a fellow consensus builder and someone that will be a safe vote for Mr. Biden’s agenda in Washington — whatever it may be.
Despite running on a platform many would consider far-left of center, Ms. Brown has received financial backing from the NewDem Action Fund. The group is the official campaign arm of the House’s New Democratic Coalition, made up of pro-business lawmakers.
Neither Ms. Brown nor the NewDem Action Fund returned requests for comment on this story.
If Ms. Brown strikes some as a moderate conciliator, then Mrs. Turner has many convinced she’s a progressive firebrand not afraid to take on the status quo. The image has been burnished by Mrs. Turner’s role in both of Mr. Sanders‘ presidential campaigns.
Mrs. Turner served as a top adviser and surrogate on the senator’s 2016 White House campaign. That cycle, her advocacy on behalf of progressive values even drew an offer from the Green Party to run as its vice-presidential nominee. Mrs. Turner turned down the opportunity, arguing the Democratic Party was “worth fighting for.”
After former President Donald Trump bested Mrs. Clinton for the presidency, Mrs. Turner was tapped to lead Our Revolution. The grass-roots advocacy group, a direct spinoff of Mr. Sanders‘ campaign, was tasked with educating the next generation of progressive leaders. When 2020 came around, Mrs. Turner left the group to serve as national co-chair of Mr. Sanders’ second presidential run.
Allies also say that the more recent experience as a national progressive figure has obscured Mrs. Turner’s decadeslong work in Ohio.
“I think if you look at her background, you see that she’s been here,” said Cleveland City Councilman Blaine Griffin, a prominent backer of Mr. Biden in 2020 who is supporting Mrs. Turner.
In the mid-2000s, Mrs. Turner served on the Cleveland City Council before running for the state senate. Once in the state legislature, she was elevated to party leadership for her abilities as both a deal maker and partisan fighter.
“I’m a consensus builder,” Mrs. Turner said. “Being progressive and working to build consensus are not mutually exclusive, you can build consensus on justice and the issues that matter to the people.”
Still, Mrs. Turner’s sheer presence on the ballot makes the race national or a referendum on the future of the Democratic Party. Her supporters, however, say that impression isn’t fair to the candidate but is fed in part by one of Mrs. Turner’s strengths as a politician.
“She has the courage to ask for more,” Mr. Griffin said. “That doesn’t always make everyone happy, even if you’re a team player. But when you have a community like ours, and I live in the inner city of Cleveland, you want someone who will fight to change the trajectory.”