Turner and Sanders last year.
Mary Altaffer / AP
“Dictatorial.” “Arrogant.” “Pompous.” “Superficial.” “Tone-deaf.” “Tone-dead.” “Out of line.” “Insulting” — “absolutely insulting.”
These are the words that Nina Turner, president of the political group founded by Bernie Sanders, used in an interview to describe the Democratic National Committee, citing a recent trip to deliver petitions to the party’s headquarters in Washington where she and other progressives were greeted by barricades, security guards, and an offering of donuts and water that she saw as an empty gesture, indicative of an institution that isn’t “smart enough, humble enough, to say let’s take a step back and really listen to the people,” that is too willing to “disregard people,” to “dismiss,” “belittle,” “shun,” to “push them to the side” — all of which left Turner with the belief that, at the moment, “the establishment side of the Democratic Party has shown themselves to be dictators.”
In the months since last year’s long and fraught Democratic primary, Sanders and key allies like Rep. Keith Ellison have worked to address tensions between the party’s establishment and grassroots powers, carving out new partnerships with the DNC and Senate leaders.
But at Our Revolution, the nonprofit Sanders founded to further his “political revolution,” Turner is taking on those same institutional forces, rallying supporters against the establishment, and stirring up the old fights of 2016 — a newly aggressive posture toward the Democratic Party that puts Our Revolution visibly out of step with its own figurehead.
“It is time to make the Democratic Party ‘Feel the Bern’ again,” Turner wrote in an email to Our Revolution members on Tuesday. “The DNC may think that they can continue working behind closed doors, but they will know different when millions of us come knocking.”
The email recounted the July 25 visit to DNC headquarters on Capitol Hill, raising the encounter with members two weeks later.
Turner, the 49-year-old former Ohio state senator, led about 60 supporters that day to the DNC offices to deliver petition signatures supporting the “People’s Platform,” a 2018 policy agenda drafted by Our Revolution in response to the one unveiled that week by party leaders in the House and Senate.
When they arrived, she said, barricades blocked the entrance steps and a handful of DNC staffers stood waiting outside. “I was absolutely stunned,” Turner said. “For them to be that tone-deaf, or that arrogant, to think that it’s OK to put up a barricade so that the people can’t even — I mean, we were not even good enough to stand on their stairs.”
DNC spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa, citing the current political climate in Washington, said barricades are put in place anytime there is a large crowd, protocol set by the “building security team,” she said, not party officials.
A spread of donuts and water had also been set up for the Our Revolution party. Turner took particular issue with the donuts and water, which she called “hand-out trinkets.”
“They tried to seduce us with donuts and water,” she said. “They’re pompous and arrogant enough to say to the people, you’re not good enough to be on our property — and, oh by the way, we’re just gonna hand you donuts and water over the barricade. That is insulting. Absolutely insulting.”
Turner decided to write to Our Revolution members about the incident because, in her view, she said, it embodied the problems that first made the DNC a source of mistrust. She recalled the brief remarks from DNC political director Amanda Brown Lierman, who told the crowd that Democrats would need their support in 2018. “That’s the problem,” said Turner. “You think people are just gonna do what you say, and you don’t have to really listen.” The DNC recalled the moment differently: Brown Lierman “expressed gratitude on behalf of the DNC,” and spoke about the party’s “shared values,” Hinojosa said.
The donuts and water, too, were meant as a gesture of goodwill. That the snacks became a source of animus remains perhaps the biggest surprise to them.
In Turner’s view, the incident is unresolved. DNC chair Tom Perez “would be wise” to call her to apologize, she volunteered, quick to recall his weakness on the left during the DNC chair’s race against Ellison, now serving as deputy chair. “Chairman Perez won, but the energy was behind Congressman Keith Ellison. The chairman would be wise to embrace this energy. He would be wise to make a phone call. He should have reached out to me by now to apologize for the way the people who came to the DNC were treated.”
Our Revolution’s indictment of the party comes at a critical but tenuous moment: Even as Democrats look to 2018 as a singular opportunity to win back seats in the House of Representatives, seizing on voters’ dissatisfaction with the president and the failed Republican health care effort, they are also struggling to resolve internal strife over the party’s economic message and policy positions and emphasis on issues like abortion and single-payer health care.
Turner rejected the idea that a new DNC fight would stir up old feelings of division and mistrust. “I want to flip that on its head,” she said. “Why won’t the Democratic Party partner with the progressive left — i.e. Our Revolution?” (Our Revolution has been invited to meetings with progressive groups at the DNC, the last one in July, and “they haven’t showed up,” according to a DNC official. The group also worked on this year’s DNC “unity” tour for Perez and Sanders, the official noted.)
Some in the Sanders orbit attributed the DNC offensive to a new phase of Our Revolution under Turner, a founding board member who assumed the role of president in July, taking the reins from one of the senator’s closest and long-serving political advisers, Jeff Weaver.
Turner, a self-described “justice warrior,” operates from the position that, as she put it, “the system has to be shaken up from time to time.” That was evident in late 2015, when she stunned the Clinton campaign by jumping ship for Sanders, and it’s been evident in her first few weeks at the helm of Our Revolution, where she seems eager to take on her own party. (“Be sure to ask her about donuts and water,” one Our Revolution staffer advised.)
Both ends of the leadership change — Turner’s rise and Weaver’s departure — promise a different dynamic and, likely, more distance between Sanders and his group at a time when the supporters waiting for his next move.
Although Weaver managed Our Revolution from something of a remove, spending much of this year working on a new book, he did serve as a central link to Sanders and guiding hand. To some current and former aides, his exit signaled that the senator’s political focus does not lie with Our Revolution. To others, it was a step away from the group’s state and local campaign effort, which has struggled to secure big victories in the Sanders name. (“Disappointing but not surprising,” said a former Sanders campaign adviser of the shift. “Voter contact is hard. Cheap stunts are easy.”)
Turner has already made Our Revolution a more forceful presence in the party — and in the press — willing to weigh in or take a position where Sanders hasn’t. (Most recently, Turner voiced support for a progressive “litmus test” in 2018. Sanders has not backed the idea.)
As Turner sees it, there’s no problem there: “He challenges the party, but he also works within that system,” she said. “And that’s a beautiful thing.”
One Sanders aide described their work as parallel but separate: The senator is working “inside the system,” the aide said, and Our Revolution is working “outside the system.”
The points at which those tracks converge in conflict will prove more difficult to navigate for Sanders, working with the same party leadership that Turner has made a target. (Ellison, the deputy DNC chair and a leading progressive, found himself in the middle of the petition upset, assuring Turner that he hadn’t known anything about it beforehand, that he was “shocked” to hear about the greeting and would take the issue to the chair, Turner said.)
If anything, Our Revolution has highlighted its conflict with the DNC. In addition to the Tuesday email, the group has used footage of Turner’s remarks at the petition drop in July — a pointed response to the DNC barricades, donuts, and water — in digital acquisition ads directing new members to their signup page.
Asked what what it would look like to “make the Democratic Party ‘feel the Bern’ again,” as she put it in the message to supporters, Turner only cited the organization’s work at-large.
“We have a component within our mission that talks about transforming the party,” she said. “And that’s what we do every day.”
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