Nina Turner on Sanders’ Support for Heath Mello for Mayor of Omaha

Story Transcript

Kim Brown: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore. On Tuesday, May 9th, the voters on Omaha, Nebraska, will head to the polls for their mayoral election. Republican incumbent, Jean Stothert, who was the first woman ever elected as mayor of Omaha is facing off against former state Senator and Democrat Heath Mello. From a national perspective, this race was pretty unremarkable. That is until Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont stepped in to endorse Mello’s candidacy, thus raising Mr. Mello’s national profile and giving him a big boost in donations, but Senators drew some fire from those on the left and within the Democratic party, particularly from women because Mello is a pro-life, otherwise known as anti-choice candidate, and he supported a 20-week ban on abortion while serving as state Senator in the Nebraska state legislature.

This begs to question, is there a purity test for Democratic and Progressive candidates on core party platform issues. If there isn’t, should there be? To answer this, we’re joined today with former state Senator of Ohio, Nina Turner, who was also a top surrogate for the Bernie Sanders for President campaign of 2016. She’s also the host of the forthcoming program here on the Real News Network called The Nina Turner Show. Senator Turner, thank you so much for joining us.

Nina Turner: Thank you, Kim. It’s good to be with you.

Kim Brown: Senator Turner, I know that you witnessed a lot of this backlash coming from on the left, Progressive women, Democratic women. I want to read part of a statement from the organization, NARAL, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. Their President, Ilyse Hogue, went on to address this statement to both Tom Perez, the DNC Chair, and Bernie Sanders. I’m reading her statement in part that says, “The actions today by the DNC to embrace and support a candidate for office who will strip women one of the most critical constituencies for the party of our basic rights and freedom is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid. Today’s action make this so-called ‘Fight Back Tour’ look like a throwback tour for women and our rights.”

Senator Turner, give us some perspective here because I know both Mr. Mello from Nebraska and Bernie Sanders have commented on this backlash and reaction that they received from women.

Nina Turner: Let me just say from some women, I think that statement from the President of NARAL was a bit extreme. They didn’t have this righteous indignation when Secretary Clinton selected Senator Tom Kaine or Governor Kaine, if you will, for her running mate who not only has the same pro-choice views, but actually executed some of those views while he was Governor. We even have our beloved Vice-President Biden who is a Catholic and struggles with the same thing that Senator Mello is struggling with, as well. I just find it odd that Governor Kaine was okay, but Senator Mello or Senator Heath Mello is not okay. In fact, the office that he is running for as mayor, I don’t know any mayor in this country … There might be some. I’ll just say I don’t know of any, and I served a mayor, that deal with abortion policy. They’re usually dealing with making sure roles are paid, and if you’re in the north, like here in Ohio, that the snow is plowed and garbage is picked up and economic development. I don’t see many Governors dealing with reproductive health policy.

That being said, Mr. Mello has said that he did some things as a Senator that his Catholic faith means a lot to him. I am a pro-choice Democratic, pro-choice, even though I was raised in a household that was not, and my mother was in the ministry and she died at the age of 42 years old, so I’m not so sure that her views would have evolved, but she might be rolling over in her grave right now to know that I am such a champion for that. I don’t know, but I bring up that point to say this, that we do have pro-life, I should say … If I said she was pro, I mean my mother was pro-life. Let me put that for … I was raised in a black church.

We do have some pro-life Democrats within the party. If the question is whether or not pro-life folks should be legislating their beliefs, then that is a very good question. I think that is a valid question, but when you have a candidate who is actually running for office that doesn’t even touch those types of issues as a matter of policy, I’m trying to figure out what the hype is all about.

Kim Brown: Senator, to push back against that a little bit because he was a former state Senator, so he did sign on to this piece of legislation in the Nebraska state legislature that would have implemented a 20-week ban on abortion, and perhaps even as mayor, he could be in an influential position to maybe influence policy in that direction, and I think that is some of the backlash that, as you mentioned, some women on the left have expressed, and wondering, in general, what does the left or Progressives or the Democratic party, what do we tolerate in terms of diversity of views on certain core issues like, for example, climate change, like for abortion? Is it okay to have climate change deniers call themselves Democrats or Progressives? Is it okay to have anti-choice candidates be endorsed by not only the Chair of the DNC, but someone who has been appointed the standard [bearer 00:05:39] for the party in Senator Sanders?

Nina Turner: You’re absolutely right. Tolerance. We’re going to get to that, but I want to go back. Your points are well taken. It is my understanding from talking to the Chair of the party, Jane Kleeb, in Omaha that a lot of what Heath Mello did as a Senator was to really try to help make bad bills less bad. He can’t walk away from his past, but what he has said moving forward is that he will be a … Even though he has his personal beliefs, that he will be a champion for women’s choice. Your point is well taken. Could he be an influencer? Absolutely, but he has said out of his mouth, no different than what Vice-President Biden has said over the years, no different than what Governor Kaine, Secretary Clinton’s running mate, has said over the years, even though he did implement public policy in the state of Virginia that did prevent women from having certain procedures. He did that, and I didn’t hear NARAL jumping up and down on the table about that.

You have a former state Senator who has said as Governor … I mean, as Governor, as mayor that he will do everything to protect women’s reproductive choice and women’s reproductive health because this argument is really … It is bigger than choice. It is bigger than abortion, but it’s about women being able to get the requisite medical care that they need and to be able to make a choice whether or not they want to have an abortion or not. That is Roe V. Wade. That is the law of the land.

Now your point about tolerance. Who am I or anybody else to tell people who they can be and who they cannot be? If a Democrat says that they are pro-life, then that’s their right to say it. What I would have a problem with and what I think a lot of Democrats, not all, should have a problem with is whether or not that person is going to legislate their beliefs. That is a valid concern, but who I am to tell somebody they don’t have a right to call themselves a Democrat?

One more other point that I want to make, people lean different ways at different times. I do want to make it clear to your viewers that for some people, because you brought up climate change, for some people, if a Democrat or any other candidate does not believe in climate change, that’s a non-starter for them. They won’t even entertain that candidate. For other people, it is abortion rights or it is choice that if that candidate in some way has a blemish in their record on that, that’s a non-starter. For other voters or groups, it may be a criminal justice reform or income and wealth inequality. It just depends. For some people, certain issues are higher on their list than others, but I do believe that the Democratic party should continue to be a pro-choice party, and that choice however extends beyond abortion. People should have the choice to be really who they are. They should not be in the business of legislating things that hurt other people’s lives, and that’s really what this is about, but we just got to come to some understanding, and we can’t be hypocrites.

In this case, I believe that NARAL, they were being hypocrites and certainly sounding the alarm on something they know good and well they were exaggerating when they didn’t do the same for a candidate that they were endorsing. That’s my thing there.

Then lastly on this point about that, the African American community, which some folks do not understand on the left that the African American community by and large is more conservative than what some of my liberal sisters and brothers understand about the African American community. That doesn’t mean that African American women don’t have the same needs. In many cases, they do, and even more so, especially poor women, but to sit up here and to think that some people who are in this party or claim or call themselves, not claim to be, call themselves Democrat, might not have a different view on certain of these issues are being ridiculous. That’s my point.

Kim Brown: Wait, wait, hold on. Senator Turner, I want to go with this because now you done opened up another can of worms because, all right, if state Senator Nina Turner was appointed head of the DNC, I want to know, what are some of the issues that are non-starters or that are the firm truth behind what it means to be a Democratic candidate and what it means to get money from the DNC? Are there issues that there is no wiggle room on? We understand that the abortion issue, at least formerly for Republicans, there used to be pro-choice Republicans. We don’t really see that anymore, but they did turn that into a litmus test as for who could be in this party in terms of the GOP. Do we have the same on the left? Is there certain issues that, “No, you’re either with us or you’re against us on these stack of issues.”

Nina Turner: Yeah. For me, again, it goes to the individual, but I’m not going to vilify folks just because they don’t necessarily agree with me. I’m going to go hard [inaudible 00:10:27] my issues. For me, my issues are income and wealth inequality, which some of these pro-choice women don’t understand that making sure, and people in general, that making sure that we have strong elected officials who are standing, not only standing up, but pushing policies that help to empower people in the economics space, in the income space, especially because African Americans and Hispanics and other people of color are disproportionately disadvantaged in that space.

For them to sit up there and say that income and wealth inequality doesn’t matter, only choice does is wrong. That’s a non-starter for me. A criminal justice reform, we need to elect folks to office who understand that the system is skewed, that it is wrong, that it is unjust for many black and brown folks, that we got 2.2 million people in prison. Most of them are African American and Hispanic and Native American, again, brown folks, that we spend 80 billion dollars a year to house people in prison when we should be doing a better job of providing that same investment on the front end via Pre-K education all the way to college. That is an issue that would be in my top three.

Then voting rights. The Democrats sat up there, Shelby V. Holder, and they went all that time, even when they were in control, and as far as I’m concerned, did not do a strong enough job to defend that, to be in people’s faces at all times about that because all of these roles lead back to the ballot box, so even from pro-choice sisters and brothers, because there’s some brothers who are pro-choice, too, to people who care about income and wealth inequality to me, which is the umbrella, people who care about the climate change that has an impact on everything that we do, making sure that we level the playing field in terms of access to the ballot box is the most important foundation that we have to be able to take care of all of these issues. I want to see people dancing in the streets and sending emails and doing all of the things that are necessary to protect access to the ballot box.

For me, those are my issues. For somebody else though, something else might be an [inaudible 00:12:34].

Kim Brown: Senator Turner, is there some wiggle room or are there passes given to either Democratic or Progressive candidates who are running in traditionally red state areas, like Heath Mello, who are obviously trying to gain some more blue traction in middle America and red state America? Do we give them a pass on issues such as abortion, maybe not having the ideal position on an issue like immigration, just for the sake of getting the seat into the blue column?

Nina Turner: Man, Kim, that is a very important, hard question. I think if you would talk to Democrats in red areas, they would say, “Yeah, we should have some leniency.” I know when I was traveling the state in 2014 running for Secretary of State, I couldn’t quite talk about some of the issues like abortion and guns in the same way that I talk about those in Cuyahoga County if I was in Ross County, for example, but I didn’t run away from my record. I’m going to tell people in Cuyahoga County the same thing I tell folks in Ross County, but I might just frame it a little differently because I had a sensitivity to how many of them felt. They were more pro-life than pro-choice. They were more, “We want our guns,” than people in the city of Cleveland.

I think we have to have that understanding, and we have to determine as a party whether or not we want to help push Blue Dog Democrat, so to speak, which Blue Dog Democrats do exist in that Congress to this day, and they don’t catch as much hell as Senator Sanders, for example, who is somebody that is carrying the mantle. He is one, and there are other leaders, like myself, people like Representative Lucy Flores, people like House Minority Leader, Stacey Abrams, who is exploring running for Governor in the great state of Georgia.

Kim, there’s never been an African American woman Governor in the history of this country. I wish some of my sisters and brothers on the left would care as much about that as they care about some of these other things. We do have to decide collectively, and I don’t know if we call it wiggle room as much as we recognize some realities that we have to navigate within the political space. That does not mean that as a party that we don’t have those issues that we say as a whole this is what we believe in, but as a practical matter, we do have to decide as a party like anybody else whether or not we would, the collective we, would have some mercy or some understanding, if you will, for people who are running in states where the culture of that state is a little different than the national culture of a party, if that makes sense.

That really is a hard question, and I certainly don’t have all the answers when it comes to that one.

Kim Brown: Fantastic conversation, as always. We’ve been speaking with former state Senator of Ohio, Nina Turner. She’s also a top surrogate of the Bernie Sanders for President campaign of 2016, and she is also the host of the forthcoming program right here on the Real News called The Nina Turner Show. Senator Turner, thanks again.

Nina Turner: Pleasure all mine. Thank you.

Kim Brown: Thank you for watching the Real News Network.

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