A House Race in Cleveland Captures the Democrats’ Generational Divide

WARRENSVILLE HEIGHTS, Ohio — Nina Turner had just belted out a short address to God’s Tabernacle of Faith Church in the cadences and tremulous volumes of a preacher when the Rev. Timothy Eppinger called on the whole congregation to lay hands on the woman seeking the House seat of greater Cleveland.

“She’s gone through hell and high water,” the pastor said to nods and assents. “This is her season to live, and not to die.”

On Aug. 3, the voters of Ohio’s 11th District will render that judgment and with it, some indication of the direction the Democratic Party is heading: toward the defiant and progressive approach Ms. Turner embodies or the reserved mold of its leaders in Washington, shaped more by the establishment than the ferment stirring its grass roots.

Democrats say there is little broader significance to this individual House primary contest, one that pits two Black women against each other in a safe Democratic district that had been represented by Marcia Fudge before she was confirmed as President Biden’s secretary of housing and urban development.

Yet in the final weeks of the campaign, the party establishment is throwing copious amounts of time and money into an effort to stop Ms. Turner, a fiery former Cleveland councilwoman and Ohio state senator known beyond this district as the face and spirit of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns, a co-chairwoman in 2020 and a ubiquitous surrogate for the socialist senator.

That suggests leaders understand that the outcome of the race will be read as a signal about the party’s future. It has already rekindled old rivalries. The Congressional Black Caucus’s political action committee has endorsed Ms. Turner’s main rival, Shontel Brown, the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chairwoman. So have Hillary Clinton and the highest-ranking Black member of the House, James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, who will be campaigning here this weekend for Ms. Brown. They argue that Ms. Brown is the better candidate, with a unifying message after four divisive years of Donald J. Trump.

Ms. Brown sees herself as liberal, but she would move step by step, for instance embracing Mr. Biden’s call for adding a “public option” to the Affordable Care Act before jumping straight to the single-payer Medicare-for-all health care system Ms. Turner wants.

“I’m not one to shy away from a challenge or conflict; I just don’t seek it out,” said Ms. Brown, who sees the differences as more style than substance. “And that’s the major difference: I’m not looking for headlines. I’m looking to make headway.”

In turn, liberal activists around the country have rushed to Ms. Turner’s defense, with money, volunteers and reinforcements. Her campaign has raised $4.5 million for a primary, $1.3 million in the last month. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York will be knocking on doors for her the same weekend Mr. Clyburn will be in town. Mr. Sanders will join the fray in person the last weekend before Election Day.

“She would be a real asset for the House,” Mr. Sanders said. “She is a very, very strong progressive, and I hope very much she is going to win.”

The race has captured less an ideological divide than a generational split, pitting older voters turned off by the liberal insurgency’s disparagement of Democratic leaders and brash demands for rapid change against younger voters’ sense of urgency and anger about the trajectory of the country and world being left to them.

At every turn here, Ms. Turner hits on the struggles of her city, the poorest large municipality in the country, but also America’s mountain of student debt, its inequity in health care and a climate crisis that has left the West parched and burning, the ice caps melting and Europe digging out from a deluge.

Cleveland’s mayor, Frank Jackson, has endorsed Ms. Turner, as has The Plain Dealer. But Ms. Brown has the most reliable voters, many of them older, more affluent and white.

For Ms. Turner to win, she needs people like Dewayne Williams, 31 and formerly incarcerated, who came out in the rain on Saturday to the Gas on God Community Giveaway, for $10 worth of free gas in one of Cleveland’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

“I’m just young, don’t know much about politics, but I know she’s a good woman,” Mr. Williams said, growing emotional after Ms. Turner leaned into his car to give him a hug. Given his experience in the prison system, he said, “the changes she’s trying to do — to even care a little bit about that situation — I definitely appreciate.”

“Oh man,” Mr. Williams added, “you’ve got to have a loud voice. You’ve got to be loud so people can hear.”

The outcome of the special election could reverberate through the party. Progressive primary challengers have already declared — and are raising impressive sums, far more than previous challengers — to take on Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney in New York, Danny K. Davis in Chicago, John Yarmuth in Louisville and Jim Cooper in Nashville. They are hoping to build on the successes of Representatives Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman in New York, Ayanna S. Pressley in Boston, Marie Newman in Chicago and Cori Bush in St. Louis — all of whom have knocked off Democratic incumbents since 2018.

All of them face opposition from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus and a new political action committee, Team Blue, started by Representatives Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic Caucus chairman; Josh Gottheimer, a moderate from New Jersey; and Terri A. Sewell, a Black Caucus member from Alabama.

“It speaks volumes to where they want us to be going as a party,” said Kina Collins, who is challenging Mr. Davis. “The message is, ‘You’re not welcome, and if you try to come in, we’re going to pony up the resources to silence you.’”

Ms. Turner said she wanted the race to be about her issues: single-payer Medicare for all, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, canceling student loan debt and other centerpieces of the Sanders movement she helped create. She said she had been warned from the beginning of her candidacy that Washington Democrats would unite around an “anyone but Nina” candidate.

But on Sunday, even she seemed surprised by the bitter turn the contest had taken. The Congressional Black Caucus PAC’s intervention particularly rankled. With the rise of liberal groups like Justice Democrats dedicated to unseating entrenched Democrats in safe seats, the caucus has emerged as something of an incumbent protection service.

It backed Representative William Lacy Clay Jr. of Missouri, a caucus member, in his unsuccessful bid to stave off a Black challenger, Ms. Bush, last year, and Representative Joyce Beatty of Ohio, now the chairwoman of the caucus, in her successful bid to beat a Justice Democrat.

But the PAC also backed Representative Eliot Engel of New York, who is white, last year against his progressive challenger, Mr. Bowman, who is Black.

And now, inexplicably to Ms. Turner and her allies, the powerful Black establishment is intervening in an open-seat race between two Black candidates.

“I don’t begrudge anybody wanting to get involved in the race,” Ms. Turner said, “but the entire Congressional Black Caucus PAC? That’s sending another message: Progressives need not apply.”

Mr. Clyburn’s high-profile intervention is especially striking. In endorsing Ms. Brown, Mr. Clyburn said he was choosing the candidate he liked best, not opposing Ms. Turner. But he did speak out against the “sloganeering” of the party’s left wing.

In Cleveland, not everyone appreciated the distinction.

“They want somebody they can control, and they want somebody to fall in line,” said State Representative Juanita Brent, who backs Ms. Turner. She said she had a message for Mr. Clyburn: “Congressman, with all due respect, stay out of our district.”

Ms. Brown, younger than Ms. Turner, with an easygoing demeanor that does not match the Turner campaign’s description of her negative campaigning, pushed back hard against the characterization of her as a Washington puppet.

Her campaign is staffed by help from SKDK, a powerhouse Democratic political firm stocked with old hands from the Clinton and Obama days. Her endorsements include moderate House Democrats like Mr. Gottheimer, many of whom are motivated by Ms. Turner’s favorable statements on Palestinian rights.

But Ms. Brown insists she is no pawn for establishment Democrats.

“You should ask the people who have tried to control me,” she said. “You will find that I am an independent thinker. I am one that likes to gather all of the facts and make an informed decision.”

At Alfred Grant’s motorcycle shop in Bedford, Ohio, where Ms. Brown was dropping by a show of motorcycle muscle on Saturday night, older Black voters backed her campaign’s assessment of Ms. Turner: You either love her or you really don’t.

“It seems to me that Nina tends to work for herself more than working together,” Roberta Reed said. “I mean, I need people who are going to work together to make it all whole.”

“She’s going to help the Biden-Harris agenda; that means a lot,” Denise Grant, Mr. Grant’s wife, said of Ms. Brown, hitting on her biggest talking point. “We don’t need anybody fighting with Biden there.”

Her husband jumped in, expressing weariness of the kind of confrontational politics that Ms. Turner embraced. “We did four years of foolishness,” he said. “Now it’s calmed down. That’s how politics should be. I don’t have to look at you every day.”

Ms. Turner does not back down from that critique. Voters can take it or leave it.

“My ancestors would have never been set free but for somebody bumping up against the status quo and saying, ‘You will not enslave us anymore,’” she said.

“Martin Luther King, Minister Malcolm X, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer — I’m just giving examples of people who I’m sure folks who believe in the status quo wish had been nicer,” she said.

At God’s Tabernacle of Faith, Pastor Eppinger teed up Ms. Turner with a rousing sermon inspired by the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel.

“How long will you walk through dead schools, dead communities, dead governments?” he thundered. “Can these dry bones live?”

Ms. Turner, in a bright yellow dress, removed her matching, bright yellow mask, and answered, “All Sister Turner is saying is, we need somebody to speak life into the dry bones of City Hall, the dry bones in Congress, and if God blesses me to go to that next place, I am going to continue to stand for the poor, the working poor and the barely middle class. Can these dry bones live?”

To that, the 50 or so parishioners gave an amen.

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