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Democrats Crowd Cleveland For A Primary That Reflects Party Tensions

Nina Turner, a candidate running in a special Democratic primary for Ohio's 11th Congressional District, speaks with supporters near the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland before casting her early vote on July 7.
Phil Long
Nina Turner, a candidate running in a special Democratic primary for Ohio's 11th Congressional District, speaks with supporters near the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland before casting her early vote on July 7.

There's an inescapable tension in the upcoming Democratic primary for Ohio's 11th Congressional District.

On the one hand, there are voters making personal, locally informed decisions about whom to support.

DeWayne Williams, for example, says he will support Nina Turner, a former state senator and co-chair of Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign.

"[She's] definitely got my vote, you know, my family vote. You know, my mom, a couple of older people have supported her throughout the years," said Williams, who got to talk to (and fist-bump) Turner through his car window at a gas station. Turner had come to campaign in the rain, during a religious organization's gasoline giveaway.

And then there are people from outside the district, like David Crow, who was just down the block from the gas station, blasting funk music from a van decorated with progressive slogans ("Healthcare is a human right") and a cutout of Turner's head.

Crow is originally from Seattle, and had gotten the van in 2015 to support Sanders.​

"I've actually worked my way up to where I'm actually a full-time activist at the moment," he said. "What I call myself is the 'road crew for the revolution.' "

It's not unusual for congressional elections to be fueled by outside actors — national parties, activists, political action committees. But between Turner's preexisting political celebrity status, the way the race mirrors internal Democratic Party fights, the high-profile endorsements, the money pouring into the district, and the simple fact that few other congressional elections are underway right now, this one Democratic primary has made the 11th district feel awfully crowded as Election Day approaches.

Local worries versus national dynamics

There are 13 Democratic candidateson the ballot to replace Marcia Fudge, a former Ohio representative who became President Biden's housing secretary this year.

Turner was the early front-runner, bringing in more than $2 million in the first few months of the year. But in recent months, the local Democratic Party chairwoman, Shontel Brown, has very much made it a two-person contest. And in this solidly blue district, the Democratic primary winner will likely hold the seat.

Ohio 11th district candidate Shontel Brown is seen during a campaign stop at Angel Falls Coffee shop in Akron on July 14.
Mike Cardew / USA Today Network via Reuters
USA Today Network via Reuters
Ohio 11th district candidate Shontel Brown is seen during a campaign stop at Angel Falls Coffee shop in Akron on July 14.

Many voters in the district have a keen sense of the seat's history — like the fact that Black women have held it since 1999.

Some, like Iris Johnston, a former Cleveland school principal, invoked the district's past representatives in the process of explaining their votes.

"I grew up with Stephanie Tubbs Jones, so I knew her as an individual, and I think Shontel has more personality than any other candidate that's running," Johnston said at a candidate forum where she saw Brown speak. Johnston said her top issue is local public safety and policing.

Several voters also talked about personally knowing or having met Brown and Turner over their years in politics. In addition to being a state senator, Turner ran for secretary of state in 2014. Brown, meanwhile, has been a local city council member and is currently on the Cuyahoga County Council.

But Turner also brought national recognition into the race, from her time on the Sanders campaign. And that means her statements from that time — like her sharp criticisms of Biden — have become a key attack point for Brown, who stresses themes of cooperation and bipartisanship on the trail.

All of this has helped the contest become much more than a local race. It can also be seen as a microcosm of the national Democratic Party, with its conflicts between liberal and moderate, outsider and establishment.

Those political axes are also apparent in some voters' explanations of their choices.

John Newman spoke about his top issue, just after he voted early.​

"Medicare for All is a real big one for me, because I just don't believe that we can just watch people just die. I just don't understand," he said.

He also associated Brown with the Democratic establishment, something he referred to as "corrupt."

Johnston, for her part, referenced Democratic politics in supporting Brown.

"I see it turning that way, more and more progressive, because you got the more radical Democrats that want things done right away, and everything can't get done right away," she said. "We have to take baby steps before we can run."

The Squad, outside ads ... and the Mom endorsement

Brown has her own help from outside the state in trying to win the seat.

Mike Insel and two other young men, all of them from Maryland, had been out canvassing for Brown.​

"I like that she's pro-Israel," said Insel, who identifies as Jewish. "I like that she's not trying to be a member of the Squad," he added, referring to the progressive group of Democratic U.S. House members.

Outside groups have been fueling this race. One PAC, the Democratic Majority for Israel, has bought ads supporting Brown and opposing Turner, who has tweeted in support of Palestinians and criticized Israel.

The Congressional Black Caucus PAC has also backed Brown. Meanwhile, progressive PACs like the Working Families Party have supported Turner.

A slate of progressive politicians are also backing Turner — Sanders, of course, as well as members of the Squad.

Brown has an array of establishment endorsements, including House Majority Whip James Clyburn and Hillary Clinton — not to mention Fudge's mom.

In interviews, both candidates resisted the framing of this race as liberal versus moderate, or as anti-establishment versus establishment.

"What people are asking about, they're not asking about who's moderate and who's progressive; they're not asking people to lay out their Democratic bona fides," Turner said. "They really want to know who is going to go to Congress and fight to change the material conditions."

Brown said that political stances can be subjective. "If you ask someone that's a little bit farther to the right, they may say I'm a progressive," she said. "If you ask someone who's a little more further to the left, they'll say I'm a moderate."

And yet, the candidates do invoke those dynamics on the trail, in the swipes they take at each other.

While taping a podcast with a local businesswoman, Turner used the words of path-breaking former politician Shirley Chisholm.

"I am an unbought and unbossed woman. And sometimes that offends people, something that it does. People are bumping up against me right now because I don't play by the rules," she said. "I'm gonna write the rules. I'm not going to play by your rules. And these are the same people who don't understand that unless you bump up, change does not happen."

Brown, meanwhile, digs at Turner for her past outspokenness, with Brown casting herself as a consensus-builder.​​

"If you're looking at someone who has been more focused on headway than headlines, then yes, I think those are the things that make me different from the other candidate," she said in an interview.

For all the national attention, this could be a low-turnout race — a special election, in early August, during a pandemic, and also competing for attention with an upcoming Cleveland mayoral race.

Not that it's going to quiet down. Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are scheduled to campaign for Turner. Clyburn will be going to the area this weekend for Brown.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.