Nina Turner fuels the Bern in Vermont visit
BENNINGTON — Nina Turner leads the progressive grass-roots group Our Revolution. But recent headlines made a crowd anticipating her arrival at a local church wonder if she was more a saint or a sinner.
Turner, head of the political action organization formed by supporters of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., after his 2016 presidential bid, is the spokeswoman who hailed 28-year-old New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's recent primary win, noting Our Revolution had endorsed and worked on her behalf.
But the group's president was also the public face targeted in a recent Politico report headlined "Bernie's Army in Disarray," which blamed her for a laundry list of management missteps that "has left many Sanders supporters disillusioned, feeling that the group that was supposed to harness the senator's grass-roots movement is failing in its mission."
As Turner introduced herself at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Bennington Friday night, many were curious to see just who she was. By the time the crowd of 100 repeated the chant "NI-NA" before capping her speech with a standing ovation, it was clear the daughter of an evangelist was preaching to an appreciative choir.
"Whether you care about the environment or women's rights or racial justice or what's happening to our sisters and brothers on the southern border, all that we love is on the line," she said to cries of "right on!" "To get the wonderful change that we know that we can have in this country, it is really about us in this room."
Turner, a former Cleveland city councilwoman and Ohio state senator, appeared as part of a two-day tour organized by Rights & Democracy that, as seen in Facebook live video streams, had people jumping to their feet in Bristol, Burlington and Rutland and the neighboring New Hampshire communities of Keene, Manchester and Plymouth.
Speaking in the nation's second-whitest state, Turner drew her share of fellow black and biracial activists, including Burlington City Councilor Ali Dieng, Rutland Area NAACP president Tabitha Pohl-Moore, Windham County NAACP president Steffen Gillom and Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, one of four people of color in the 180-member Vermont Legislature.
"It's nice to see a little diversity," Turner told Morris.
"We're here," Morris replied.
"We're everywhere," Turner said.
But the Our Revolution leader, who first visited Vermont to attend the state Democratic Party's 2016 David W. Curtis Awards Dinner, used her latest trip to promote "us collectively."
"I want to encourage and remind you that we are all in this together," she told her Bennington audience "This is about a system that is rigged. It is rigged socially, it is rigged economically and it is rigged politically. There is no way on the face of this earth that in the wealthiest country in the world that such suffering should take place."
Our Revolution has 600 local groups in 49 states, with South Dakota the lone exception. The organization — which is careful to point out it's not a political action committee — was led by Sanders' 2016 campaign manager Jeff Weaver until Turner succeeded him last year.
Turner's speaking style communicates both her Christian and civil roots.
"We went to church eight days a week," she recalled of her childhood.
"Senator Sanders lit the match," she continued. "It is our job to keep it burning." Vermont, she added, is "the center of the flame."
That said, Our Revolution drew a recent scorching rebuke in Politico, which questioned whether Turner, acknowledged to be "an effective spokesperson," was spending too much time out of the office and away from administrative matters.
"Though Sanders himself continues to reshape Democratic politics, with many presidential contenders signing on to his 'Medicare for All' bill and primaries across the country being fought further on the left's turf than in decades," chief Washington correspondent Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote, "supporters warn that the senator himself will suffer if the group formed in his name is seen as weak and floundering."
In response, Turner notes the group is less than two years old and comes after the Democratic Party has lost more than 1,000 seats in Congress, state legislatures and governor's offices over the past decade.
"We just got here and we're taking the road less traveled," she said in Bennington. "We are softening the soil for every progressive candidate that dares to run. The fact so many people are running for office is a sign that the work we are doing is penetrating and having an impact. When you can get people to put in their time, talent and treasure, to me that's winning any day of the week."
Turner, who has juggled invitations to speak in 37 states with commentating on CNN, said she isn't running for anything, just following in the footsteps of American ancestors who fought against slavery and for women's suffrage and workers' rights.
"No matter how daunting the circumstances or situation may seem, we must keep going," she said. "Our job in the 21st century is to continue to lift the mantle of justice. It's never over. We're always fighting for something."
Turner cited news of a coming shift in the U.S. Supreme Court with the retirement of swing Justice Anthony Kennedy.
"We know many are concerned," she said. "Hopefully this will galvanize people to see that elections have consequences and we have to be engaged in every single cycle. We need to do the hard work right now to listen to people, understand where they're coming from, and create real relationships so they will be motivated to come out to vote."
Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at email@example.com.
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