One doesn’t need more than a couple minutes with Nina Turner to understand why she is one of the Ohio Democratic Party’s brightest rising stars.
Her dynamic speaking style grabs any listener almost instantly, pulls you close, on a human level. She’s relatable. She’s got Cleveland, Ohio, in the marrow of her bones. It spices her sensibilities, trickles through her speech. She has no truck with pretension.
The oldest of seven children, Turner embraces leadership roles, not shying from speaking out and speaking up. She likes language and tosses around motivational flourishes: “Teamwork to make the dream work,” she’ll aside.
She graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in 1986, later earning an associate of arts degree from Cuyahoga Community College and then a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from Cleveland State University.
The Ohio General Assembly has been nothing new to Turner.
She served as a legislative aide to former state Sen. Rhine McLin, and served as executive assistant of legislative affairs for Cleveland’s longest serving mayor, Michael White.
In 2005, Turner was elected to Cleveland City Council. In 2008, she was unanimously appointed by the Democratic caucus to replace resigning Sen. Lance Mason, who was appointed to the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. In 2010, Turner won a full term.
In 2012, with Ohio Republicans trying to govern what ladies can and cannot do with their ladyparts, Turner pulled their pants down, introducing a bill that would require a notarized affidavit from sexual partners confirming impotence in order to acquire an erectile dysfunction prescription.
Over the past two years, Turner has continued the fight for women’s healthcare rights, a living wage for working class Americans, and perhaps most significantly now that she is running for Ohio Secretary of State, full and fair access to the voting booth.
Ohio Republicans put their fear of Turner on blast when they launched a website attacking her for being “too partisan.” This makes Nina Turner smile.
“They say I’m too partisan! Because I stand up for workers, and women, and children. I’m too partisan,” she laughs.
Ohio is the quintessential swing state, but rampant gerrymandering of state legislative districts and U.S. Congressional districts doesn’t show this at all.
“I argue that we are conservative by design and not conservative by desire,” Turner says. “In the last redistricting process elected officials carved out this state in such a way that they got a chance to choose their constituents and not the other way around.”
Turner says that the state has been rigged in Republicans’ favor and calls it a disservice to the citizens of Ohio. She points out that the right is legislating with their eyes on being primaried, and this creates a situation where they are trying to out-right each other instead of representing Ohio citizens as a whole.
“As Secretary of State, I would like to see the general assembly do (fair redistricting), but if they won’t I’d like to see the citizens put an initiative on the ballot,” she says, adding that it should occur before the next U.S. Census in 2020. “We need it now. We can’t wait. People suffer when people are that extreme. We need to make sure constituents get a chance to choose their elected officials and not the other way around.”
Ohioans cannot afford more years of gridlock and partisanship to wait for fair representation. Frustration is mounting over a rigged game.
“Mid-decade re-districting is the way we should go,” Turner says, noting that the Secretary of State can be an advocate but it will be up to the citizens of Ohio to get it done. Turner does not get bogged down in this procedural fact, but encourages that it’s up to we, the people. And under Turner, we would find a strong ally.
Turner is also a strong advocate for online voter registration.
“Our democracy is better the more people who participate,” she says. “I have a comprehensive bill pending called the Voter Protection Act, but within that is online voter registration. In the Senate, it does have some bipartisan support. I just can’t understand why we can’t get it done. Why not do it? Let’s do it!”
Pre-registration of 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds is also on Turner’s list.
“Let’s get them young, get them participating, so when they turn 18 they are already registered,” she says. “I would really like to engage young people, let them know what it means to live in a representative democracy.”
She points to research from the Pew Center showing earlier engagement is a predictor for life-long political participation.
“I want to bring excitement to voting,” she says. “I want to partner with media outlets, radio personalities, celebrities if we need to. I want to remind people that every single year, there is an election, whether there is a person or an issue on the ballot, that’s going to affect your life. And you can’t sit it out.”
Turner gets excited talking about voting, about the foundational aspects of a democracy: that the people’s voice be heard. Her excitement is infectious. She sets goals high.
“I want 100 percent participation, if I can. I want those almost 8 million registered voters to come out and vote. So I have to drive them there, and do what it takes to drive them there,” she says. “Let’s work with local boards. Let’s do best practices. Let’s start some pilot programs. Let’s drive people! I want the headlines to read, ‘Ohio is the gold standard for elections.’”
Nina Turner does not like the phrase “off year” when talking about elections. She stresses that every election matters, from school board members to president.
“Psychologically ‘off’ means disengaging. It makes people relaxed. ‘I’ll see you in four years,’” she says. “Psychologically, they are responding logically: You said it was ‘off.’ We have to say these elections, non-presidential, mid-term elections, are even more important, because you’re electing people closer to home.”
School board members, mayors, township trustees, local issues, judges, this is important stuff. Americans can’t afford to sit it out. Turner understands that politics can be frustrating.
“But if you are mad, be mad enough to be part of the solution,” she says. “I think people think if they don’t participate they can escape politics. It’s all around us! From where the stop sign is to zoning laws, whether or not your city fills potholes or plows snow. That is all the power of government, with your money. It’s your government. It’s your money. You’ve got to participate.”
It’s OK to be mad as hell, Turner says, “But what are you going to do about it?”
“The voting space is really one place where we are all equal,” she says. “Socio-economic status doesn’t matter. Gender doesn’t matter. Who you love doesn’t matter. We are all equal.”
It’s been less than 100 years since women won access to the ballot box with the 19th Amendment. The fight for co-equality was long-fought and hard-won. The Voting Rights Act was long-fought and hard-won. This needs to be remembered.
“Changing rules and access to make voting harder, that should not be happening in the 21st century. We fought those battles,” she says.
This is a battle Turner is passionate about continuing to fight.
Just this week, Ohio’s current secretary of state, Republican Jon Husted, was granted a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court of an appeals court ruling upholding the restoration of Ohio’s original early voting period, including the Golden Week and evening hours.
“The same divided court that struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act has now made it immeasurably more difficult for working Ohioans, African Americans, and low-income and homeless voters to cast their ballot. Thanks to Secretary Husted’s persistence, his efforts to restrict ballot access have finally been successful. Despite Secretary Husted’s continued push to make it harder to vote, I remain committed to creating the simple, convenient, and secure elections that Ohio’s voters deserve.”
Turner notes that these early voting standards were put into place with huge bipartisan support after 70,000 people walked away from the polls in 2004 after standing in line for hours upon hours.
“The legislature corrected itself in a very bipartisan way so voters in Ohio since 2006 have become accustomed to having 35 days and having the Golden Week,” she says. “All of that has been working. Why would you want to take it away? Republicans have certainly given no particular reason for why they want to take it away.”
She compares it to coming to my house and robbing me blind.
“And then as I walk away I say, ‘David, you still have your roof over your head. What are you complaining about? I left your house intact,’” she says. “We’re dealing with a secretary of state who has spent over $400,000 in taxpayer dollars in litigation to stop people from having access to the ballot box.”
Voters deserve better, she says, and she is running to protect and expand the fundamental right to cast a vote.
Turner has other plans for the office as well, including the secretary of state’s role in aiding small businesses.
“I want the office to be a bridge,” she says. “Not just a place for businesses to come to fill out paperwork but also find resources.”
She sees an opportunity for the office could help businesses find incubation opportunities, and connect with each other. It all fits into the general theme at the center of Turner’s advocacy: Opportunity.
“I say opportunity in business, opportunity at the ballot box, opportunity in life.”
David DeWitt is a journalist and universal minister based out of Athens, Ohio. He can be found on Twitter @TheRevDeWitt.