It was all supposed to be so simple for Ohio Democrats heading into the 2012 presidential election. Fresh off the defeat of anti-collective bargaining Issue 2, Republican governor John Kasich became a lame duck only a year into office. Impending battles over re-districting would further sully the GOP brand and thus state politicos and operatives could concentrate on keeping the state blue for a beleaguered president in Washington.
Then along comes State Senator Nina Turner (D-Cleveland). She decided she didn’t want to play ball.
If she has her way, the Congressional Black Caucus and Ohio presidential politics face an uncertain future in 2012.
Turner has decided to take on two term incumbent Marcia Fudge for Ohio’s powerful 11th district. This is one of the most significant challenges to a sitting black member of the Congressional Black Caucus for 2012, not just because Fudge could lose, but because of the importance of the 11th district in Congressional and presidential politics.
The 11th District of Ohio is a petri dish for the modern Midwestern. Aging white steel workers living in old houses along Lake Erie, educated suburbanites living and working at Case Western Reserve University and your classic Americana neighborhoods like Shaker Heights all living in New Deal Democratic harmony.
Since being re-districted in the early 80’s, Ohio’s 11th has been one of the most Democratic districts in America and held by an African American Congressman for almost 20 years. Because of the demographic stability (55% African American with strong turnout) and critical placement in a must have swing state, the winner of the 11th is always primed to rack up seniority in Congress and become the highest ranking Black elected official in the state.
That’s why Turner is challenging incumbent Marcia Fudge, only in her second term. But, she’s also getting side-eye from Case Western to K Street.
A long and bloody primary that might run into June of 2012, mixed with impending redistricting battles in Ohio, would tie up incumbent Marcia Fudge, a potentially powerful political voice for the Obama campaign in the Northeast Ohio region.
Think Ned Lamont vs. Joe Lieberman in 2006. Local challenger to sitting politician may be saying the right things and support the right policies, but national leaders are put in a tough spot. Do you support the incumbent, because they have seniority and sway in Washington, or do you support the upstart who has the potential to be even more effective if given the chance? And then there’s the issue of fracturing Black politics in the most populous and Democratic county in a swing state.
“Political people in the know, will say that Nina may not have a base, and the black political establishment will crush her if she really runs. But regular people don’t care, she can…. She’s got that thing,” said a source close to the Fudge campaign speaking on condition of anonymity.
And by that “thing” we mean the kind of passionate, rough around the edges style of the former Ohio 11th Congresswoman who’s legacy still hangs over this crucial race.
Marcia Fudge was elected in a special election for the Ohio 11th district after the untimely death of Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones in 2008. Jones was a force of nature: exciting, passionate and a rising star in the Democratic Party. In 2004, she was the head of the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign in Ohio and one of only 31 members of Congress to openly charge the Bush Campaign with electoral fraud. By the time of her death of a freak brain aneurysm in the summer of 2008 she was head of the House Ethics committee and was arguably the safest most powerful Democrat in the state. How safe was the Ohio 11th seat? Tubbs-Jones openly campaigned for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama and for all the heat she took, not one person thought to challenge her in a primary.
When Fudge was elected to the seat in a special election in 2008 she was seen as an effective, competent politician – but, not the kind of mud-in-your eye firebrand that folks in scrappy Northeast Ohio necessarily fall in love with.
Anticipating a possible challenger, the Congressional Black Caucus has gone out if it’s way to bolster Fudge’s public profile over the last year. She was made co-chair of the Annual Congressional Black Caucus Conference in Washington D.C. and put on the CBC’s Jobs commission. However, that might not be enough to stop another around-the-way Cleveland girl with style more in the mold of dearly departed Tubbs-Jones.
Turner is loud, passionate and unpolished, but she tore it up at the Ohio State Black Legislators Conference earlier this year with a speech/call-and-response routine that would make Kanye West jealous. She got called an Aunt Jemima when she broke with the Black Political establishment in 2009 by supporting a controversial re-organization of county elected officials. A move which actually ingratiated her crucial base of White businessmen in the area.
All of that has made her public enemy #1 of the machine in Cleveland. Yet, it puts her more in line with the feisty spirit of Tubbs-Jones in the minds of most East Siders. And while Turner is still rough around the edges, and probably wouldn’t fly so well in rural downstate Ohio, she has become a favorite of local news, and a go-to person for MSNBC’s Ed Shultz.
This is not to say that this is a slam dunk win for Turner. According to an Ohio Democratic party operative who asked to remain anonymous: “Turner would be crazy to run for office right now. She told everyone that she wasn’t. If she goes back on her word, even if she wins everyone’s going to hate her for screwing up seniority for the state delegation [in Washington].”
Initially, some party insiders believed that Turner was just saber-rattling about running for Congress, and her decision to create an exploratory committee seemed to justify that belief. By opening a 527 instead of a full blown campaign it would have allowed her to raise money but transfer it to any office she ran for, including a long rumored desire to run statewide in 2014. Those hopes were dashed when Turner made it clear this morning in a conference call to local Cleveland reporters that she was in this race to win it. While there is still time for Turner to back out of the race, and state operatives will do everything they can to make that a reality, it looks like everybody from the CBC to the White House has to keep an eye on Northeast Ohio for the foreseeable future.
Dr. Jason Johnson, Politic365 Chief Political Correspondent, is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. You can read more at www.drjasonjohnson.com or follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson