House primary in Ohio takes nasty turn as national Democrats descend

CLEVELAND — The two leading Democratic candidates in Ohio's 11th Congressional District have turned the final days of a special election primary that has captured the national spotlight into a slugfest.

Nina Turner, a former state senator, is running on a push for universal health care and a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Cuyahoga County Council member Shontel Brown, who also chairs the county's Democratic Party, is pitching herself as a staunch loyalist of President Joe Biden who wouldn't try to force the White House agenda too far to the left.

The nasty tone that has been present for months escalated Thursday as high-profile surrogates for both candidates were set to arrive here. Turner, 53, unleashed a commercial that questions Brown's ethics and ends with the image of a jail door slamming. (Brown's campaign manager said the ad was "verifiably false.") Brown, 46, has sought to paint Turner, known nationally for her work on Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaigns, as too much of an outsider and too critical of Biden to accomplish anything in Congress.

The national endorsers, while welcomed by the candidates, have superimposed past Democratic battles onto the district, frustrating those who say eagerness for a proxy war is overshadowing local nuances and issues. Brown and Turner are successful Black politicians in a majority Black district, familiar on their own merits to voters. Both have made local issues like poverty and gun violence central to their campaigns.

"All of that has kind of gotten drowned out in a battle that's become about a lot of things that have nothing to do with the city of Cleveland," said David Pepper, a former state Democratic Party chairman who has endorsed Turner. "And that's been pretty painful to watch."

Shontel Brown, a candidate vying to represent Ohio's 11th Congressional District, talks with Nancy Holland, Akron city council ward 1, at Angel Falls Coffee shop during a campaign stop in Akron on July 14, 2021. (Mike Cardew / Akron Beacon Journal file)
Shontel Brown, a candidate vying to represent Ohio's 11th Congressional District, talks with Nancy Holland, Akron city council ward 1, at Angel Falls Coffee shop during a campaign stop in Akron on July 14, 2021. (Mike Cardew / Akron Beacon Journal file)

Sanders, I-Vt., arrives Friday for a weekend of get-out-the-vote events with Turner. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina — whose endorsement last year helped Biden pull away from Sanders and win his state's pivotal primary — is flying in to campaign with Brown.

Eleven other Democrats are seeking the seat, although none has the resources to rival Brown and Turner. Given the district's heavy Democratic makeup, Tuesday's winner is almost certain to be the next representative. Recent polls show that a race that had been Turner's to lose has tightened. Through Thursday, Turner and outside groups supporting her had spent more than $2.1 million on TV and digital advertising, compared to about $1.9 million from Brown and her allies, according to AdImpact, an ad-tracking firm.

The seat, which represents a chunk of Cleveland, its eastern suburbs and parts of Akron, opened when former Rep. Marcia Fudge left to be Biden's housing secretary.

Attacks on Brown and Turner, meanwhile, have frequently been simplified to fit the nationalized nature of the race.

At a Turner news conference Wednesday on the steps of Cleveland City Hall, a state legislator blasted Brown as a "do-as-you're-told Democrat." Such rhetoric shortchanges Brown's leadership of a Cuyahoga County Democratic Party known for its rival factions and on the County Council, where she advanced legislation to declare racism a public nuisance.

"I work with those from the farthest left to the most moderate within the party, and I do not wear any of the labels," Brown told NBC News. "I don't do this for the attention. I don't do it from a megaphone."

Similarly, Brown and others paint Turner as an obstructionist who doesn't play with others, dwelling on her criticism of Biden while overlooking her earlier work as a state legislator known for collaborating with John Kasich, a Republican who was then the governor. Turner, who was once viewed as a future mayor of Cleveland, was a top state party official and had been among those encouraging Hillary Clinton to run for president in 2016. Her abrupt defection to Sanders — and her relentless loyalty to him, even after his losses — earned her enemies. Clinton is supporting Brown.

"I'm a unity candidate," Turner said. "If you look at the people who have endorsed me, from local all the way to national, you will find a little something for everybody."

Turner, mindful of hard feelings from 2016 and 2020, said she expected establishment forces to wage an "Anybody But Nina" movement. The Congressional Black Caucus — led by Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, an early Brown backerendorsed Brown a week after Clyburn did. And in a district with a substantial Jewish population, pro-Israel groups also have gone big for Brown.

Turner, unlike Brown, doesn't favor unconditional U.S. aid to Israel, and she has expressed sympathy for Palestinians in their conflict with Israel. A recent Democratic Majority for Israel ad rehashed Turner's remark in July 2020 comparing a vote for Biden to eating fecal matter. The organization, which supports Brown, has spent more than $800,000 on TV and digital spots in the race.

"The Jewish vote matters," said Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, which is backing Brown with a five-figure print and digital push. "It matters even more in elections where turnout isn't great, and Jews are known to turn out at a higher rate."

Turner is particularly angry about a recent donation to Brown from Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who has been friendly with former President Donald Trump.

"They are polluting and diluting the voices of the people of this district in a special election that is an open seat," Turner said of the outsiders opposing her candidacy. "They care about preserving their own power. They don't care that Cleveland is the largest poor city in America. ... They don't care that 23 percent of Akron residents are living in poverty. They don't care about the gun violence in Akron and in Cleveland."

Brown and Turner have plenty of Northeast Ohio supporters between them.

Brown's include Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan and the influential Rev. Otis Moss. Fudge, minding a federal law that complicates endorsements from Cabinet officials, hasn't weighed in, although her mentorship of Brown is well-known among local Democrats. Fudge's mother endorsed Brown in an ad.

Turner's list of local backers offers more evidence against the narrative that she's a political outsider. Several establishment fixtures, including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, have endorsed her, as has Cleveland City Council member Blaine Griffin, an early Biden supporter.

"We've never seen a Democratic primary this heated, so it's a little bit new to everybody," said Griffin, a former county party vice chair. "What's really surprising to me is how many national figures are willing to come into a safe district and actually create this much ruckus."

Sanders' support of Turner was never in doubt. Clyburn's endorsement of Brown last month was a bigger deal nationally. Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, is credited with helping to resurrect Biden's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination last year.

"He is known as a kingmaker," Brown said. "So hopefully he will also be a queenmaker."

Clyburn said he has known Brown for years, dating to her work on Fudge's campaigns, and he praised her for her ability to get along with others. He added, without mentioning Turner by name, that "you get much more success with honey than you do with vinegar." And he bristled at comments by state Rep. Juanita Brent, a Turner supporter who has called on Clyburn to "stay out of our district."

"Bernie Sanders is supporting the other candidate, and that's fine," Clyburn said. "Jim Clyburn supports Shontel Brown, and I need to stay out of the district. I'd like somebody to explain that to me."

Turner has spent much of the race parrying questions about her colorful criticisms of Biden and her endorsements from members from "the squad," the group of progressive House Democrats led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who campaigned with her last weekend. She asserts that the national supporters she has invited to the district support her not for her personal loyalty but for her positions. And while those positions often place her to the left of Biden, Turner said she would work with his White House and accept any invitation to negotiate policies that could help the district.

"If the prerequisite for a relationship is 100 percent agreement 100 percent of the time, then that's not much of a relationship," Turner said. "That's called 'Obey.'"