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 group founded by Bernie Sanders to further his “political revolution,” used in an interview to describe the Democratic National Committee. The grievances converge around a recent trip to deliver petitions to the party’s headquarters in Washington, where Turner and other progressives were greeted by barricades, security guards, and an offering of donuts and water, an empty gesture indicative, as she saw it, 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 instead is far too willing to “disregard people,” to “dismiss,” “belittle,” and “shun,” to “push them to the side” — all of which has left Turner with the view, as she puts it, that “the establishment side of the Democratic Party have shown themselves to be dictators” who “want to dictate the terms of unity.”
In the months since last year’s long and fraught Democratic primary, Sanders and allies like Rep. Keith Ellison have become key partners in that same “establishment side,” working from new leadership roles in the U.S. Senate and at the DNC.
If Sanders is working to change the system from within, Turner’s approach at Our Revolution looks to be the opposite: After taking over last month, she’s taking on the same institutional forces that are allied with Sanders, rallying supporters against the familiar target of the DNC, and offer candid at times cutting critique of the party and its centers of power — a newly aggressive posture toward the Democratic Party that puts Our Revolution out in front of 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 same July 25 visit to DNC headquarters on Capitol Hill.
Turner, the 49-year-old former Ohio state senator and DNC member herself, 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 Tuesday. “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.”
Citing the current political climate in Washington, DNC spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa said the 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 same problems that made the DNC a source of mistrust among progressives in the first place. 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 recounted 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 token of goodwill, officials said. That the snacks were a source of animus came as a surprise inside the building.
On her end, Turner said, the incident remains unresolved: DNC chair Tom Perez “would be wise” to call her to apologize, she said, quickly recalling his weakness with progressives in the tight chair’s race earlier this year against Ellison, now serving as DNC deputy chair. “Chairman Perez won, but the energy was behind Congressman Keith Ellison,” said Turner. “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 DNC, amplified in Tuesday’s email, comes at a critical but tenuous moment for the party: 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 settle on an effective economic message and resolve their approach to policy 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 responded. “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, according to a DNC official, and “they haven’t showed up.” The official also noted that Our Revolution and the DNC worked together earlier this year on the party’s “unity”-themed tour, headlined by Sanders and Perez.)
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 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 new dynamic between Sanders and Our Revolution, likely one with more distance, current and former aides said. Although Weaver managed the group from something of a remove, spending much of this year working on a new book, he did serve as a central link to Sanders. To some of Sanders hands, his exit was a signal that the senator’s political focus lies elsewhere. To others, it meant a step away from the group’s state and local campaign effort, which has struggled to secure victories under the Sanders banner. (“Disappointing but not surprising,” said a former Sanders campaign adviser of the shift. “Voter contact is hard. Cheap stunts are easy.”)
Turner, who also sits on the DNC’s Unity and Reform Commission, has already made Our Revolution a more forceful presence in the party — and in the press — willing to weigh in or take positions where Sanders has not. (Most recently, Turner voiced support for a progressive “litmus test” in 2018. Sanders has not backed the idea.)
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, and conflict, however, will prove more difficult to navigate, with Sanders working with the same party leadership that Turner has made a new 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, according to Turner.)
So far, Our Revolution has only highlighted its recent 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 Tuesday’s Our Revolution email puts it, Turner didn’t offer specifics beyond the group’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.”