Turner marches on in the Sanders revolution

Turner marches on in the Sanders revolution
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When Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersTrump's move to halt family separations leaves questions unanswered Sanders: 'Democrats have been serious about comprehensive immigration reform' Races to watch in Tuesday’s primaries MORE (I-Vt.) attended a rally last week to endorse Maryland gubernatorial hopeful Ben Jealous, it was another attendee who brought down the house.

Nina Turner, president of the Sanders-aligned nonprofit Our Revolution, was clearly a favorite with the crowd.

“We need leaders who believe in the tradition of Mother Jones, that we pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” Turner said to wild applause.

Our Revolution was formed from the remnants of Sanders’ presidential campaign, with the goal of building on the grassroots activism inspired by his White House bid.

The group’s first year was rocky at times, with staffing issues plaguing its early weeks and several of its favored candidates failing to win their races.

But Turner, who took over the organization late last month, says the group’s work has only just begun, adding that she’s not concerned with Democrats who are wary of the party moving to the left.

“I want to see more people elected to office that have a consciousness for the people. If they’re Democrats, God bless ’em. Republican? God bless ’em. Libertarian, Green Party, anything in between? [We need] people who are conscious and people who know they hold the people’s power.”

Turner has been a central figure in Sanders’ orbit ever since she publicly withdrew her support of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhat did Peter Strzok do? The strategic blunder of ‘Trump-as-Hitler’ Races to watch in Tuesday’s primaries MORE in the Democratic presidential primary to endorse him. A former Ohio state senator and state Democratic Party official, Turner regularly defended Sanders on television and served as a key surrogate for his outreach to the black community during the campaign.

The board of Our Revolution includes a number of prominent Sanders loyalists such as Jealous, Turner, longtime labor leader Larry Cohen and Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb.

The national organization has satellite groups that so far stretch into 48 of the 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico (North and South Dakota do not yet have local affiliates).

In concert with the local chapters, Our Revolution has tried to rally support for its endorsed candidates, mostly in state and local races. In 2016, 59 candidates endorsed by the group won, while 50 lost.

Its success rate has slowed in 2017. Candidates endorsed by Our Revolution have so far triumphed in 15 races but lost in 29, and the defeats included high-profile contests such as the Virginia gubernatorial Democratic primary and the Montana House special election.

Turner and her supporters say they are focused on the long term.

“There’s no such thing as an off-year election — local leaders matter, too. The way we win is to get people engaged and inspired every step of the way, not just every four years,” Turner said. 

“It’s not going to happen overnight. We’ll be a year old [in August]. We have many more years to go.”

Our Revolution is now devoting much of its firepower to the healthcare debate, as Republicans seek to enact legislation to repeal and replace ObamaCare. 

While some groups are working to thwart the GOP legislation with sit-ins and protests, Our Revolution is instead focused on advocating for single-payer healthcare — an idea championed by Sanders that has yet to catch on fully in the Democratic Party, though it’s gaining steam.

More than half of House Democratic lawmakers have signed on to co-sponsor a bill to enact single-payer healthcare, and polling shows the policy gaining support.

Republicans have seized on the movement toward single-payer among Democrats, mocking the party as focused on a pie-in-the-sky idea that would only bankrupt the government.

Turner bucked that criticism, recounting the healthcare woes she’s heard from Americans while traveling with the group. And she pointed to the near miss on installing a single-payer system in California, which stalled in a Democratic-controlled state house thanks to intraparty fighting.

“We are making progress, but we haven’t won until a bill is passed and signed by a president,” she said.

“All of the Democrats who signed on to this, most of them didn’t do it on their own. They did it because the grassroots said: ‘This is something that we want.’ ‘It always seems impossible,’ to quote Nelson Mandela, ‘until it’s done.’ ”

The work of Our Revolution resembles that of Organizing for Action (OFA), the group that grew out of former President Obama’s campaign. Both focus on advocating for their principal’s policy agenda, mobilizing grassroots supporters throughout the country and endorsing candidates that back that agenda.

But there are some major differences: OFA supported a sitting president who largely set his party’s agenda, while Our Revolution supports the policies of a politician who often goes his own way.

Sanders has been willing to work with Democrats on projects such as a recent unity tour, and his key ally Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison is the Democratic National Committee’s deputy chairman.

But some Democrats privately bristle at the idea that Sanders and his coalition will command such power — especially since Sanders has refused to register as a Democrat.

That frustration is only compounded by the willingness of Sanders’ allies to back primary challenges or endorse candidates who are not Democrats, outcomes some fear could hurt the party’s chances of turning seats blue and winning back the House in 2018.

When asked about the concerns from Democrats about those challenges hurting the party’s electoral agenda, Turner said her group exists to go beyond the dominant political parties.

“I want to take a line from sister Janet Jackson when she says, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ That is what the American people are asking of politicians,” she said.

“If their quality of life doesn’t get better, what difference does it make if it’s a Democrat or Republican? In California, what difference does it really make when you have Democrats that control basically everything and then they lack the intestinal fortitude to pass single-payer?

“Our Revolution exists to empower the grassroots and let them know the power is in their hands.”