Battle of the Stars

Up-and-coming Democrat Nina Turner goes after the ambitious Jon Husted’s secretary of state position

click to enlarge Nina Turner is one of many Democrats calling the GOP’s uniform early voting hours a farce.
Nina Turner is one of many Democrats calling the GOP’s uniform early voting hours a farce.

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s Democrats fight an uphill battle against incumbent Republicans for major statewide offices, one race in particular has taken on an increased significance. 

The battle between Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and his challenger, Democrat State Senate Minority Whip Nina Turner, could decide how much access to the ballot box residents of the state will get.

The secretary of state is charged with administering the state’s elections. Ohio, and Husted, have made national headlines over the past two years for efforts to roll back the state’s early voting hours.

Turner and other Democrats are hitting Husted over GOP-led rollbacks of early voting in the state. Husted says he’s just trying to make voting uniform in the state’s 88 counties. But Turner points out that in urban areas, polling places see big lines and longer wait times, making the idea of uniform voting hours a farce.

In 2004, Ohio made national news due to long wait times at many urban polling places. Extended early voting hours fixed this to a degree. They also gave a big boost to Democrats. Early voters are credited with helping deliver Ohio, a vital swing state, to President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. More than 1.7 million Ohioans took advantage of early voting in 2008 — almost 30 percent of votes cast.

Democrats say rolling back early voting has civil rights implications. In 2008, blacks in Ohio took advantage of early voting at twice the rate whites did — 19 percent to 9 percent. In 2012, almost 20 percent of blacks in the state took advantage of early voting hours, compared to just 6 percent of whites.

In 2012, Franklin Party Ohio GOP chair Doug Preis caused controversy after writing in an email to The Columbus Dispatch, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine.”

All this has lead to protracted legal wrangling over a law passed by the GOP-led Ohio General Assembly reducing the number of early voting days from 35 to 28 days. The ACLU has sued the state over the law. Though a federal court found in its favor, the U.S. Supreme Court put a stay on that ruling just days before early voting was to start, effectively upholding the controversial law temporarily.

Days cut include the so-called “golden week,” when voting registration and early voting overlapped. During that time, voters could register and vote at the same location. These early voting days also encompassed weekends before the election, including Sundays when so-called “souls to the polls” drives by black churches helped get black voters to the ballot box.

Though the issue has been deeply divided by party, Turner says boosting residents’ ability to vote isn’t a partisan issue.

“It’s doesn’t matter how people want to vote,” she said at an Oct. 7 campaign stop in Columbus. “It doesn’t matter if they lean a little red, a little blue, somewhere in between. We just want people to have access to the ballot box.”

It’s been a tough race and doesn’t look to get easier in the closing days of election season. Husted’s campaign has more than $2.2 million going into the final days, while Turner’s is running on fumes — her campaign has just $70,000 left.

But Turner has some well-known boosters, including former President Bill Clinton, who wrote a campaign email for Turner. The Ready for Hillary PAC, a fundraising organization for a possible Hillary Clinton presidential bid, also pitched Turner’s campaign $12,500. Noted civil rights leader Jesse Jackson has also stepped in to tout Turner, appearing in radio ads in Ohio singing her praises and equating voting access to a civil rights issue.

Turner has also been making campaign appearances with former Cincinnati Mayor Jerry Springer, who has been vocal in his support for her campaign. Springer appeared with Turner at campaign stops in Cincinnati and Dayton Oct. 25.

“It’s a basic, All-American issue,” Springer said of the fight over early voting. “It’s embarrassing that we still have to debate this issue in 2014.”

Both Husted and Turner are rising stars in their parties, though they come from very different backgrounds.

Husted has held the office since his election in 2010 when he beat Democrat Maryellen O’Shaughnessy. At 47, he’s seen as an ambitious and promising prospect in the Ohio GOP who has already held an array of offices and titles.

Husted grew up in tiny, rural Montpelier, Ohio. After attending the University of Dayton, Husted turned down a job coaching football at University of Toledo to work in politics. He stuck around Dayton, volunteering for congressional campaigns, working for a county commissioner and the local chamber of commerce and building connections.

“I think Jon just showed all of the skills and the tools,” said fellow Republican state House member Tom Raga in 2008. “And at that early stage, he was already showing himself to be a policy and political strategy expert.”

By 32, he was a freshman in the Ohio House of Representatives. He quickly teamed up with other Republicans and rose to become speaker of the house. In 2008, he ran for state Senate and won. But even then he was already talking about the possibility of becoming secretary of state.

Turner, 47, has also shown a great deal of ambition, though in much different circumstances. Turner’s teenage parents split when she was 5 years old, and her family drifted from place to place in her native Cleveland. By the age of 14, when most kids are dreading doing their homework, Turner, the family’s oldest child, was going to work to bring home another pay check.

“Every step of the way life was hard,” she told students at her former school, John F. Kennedy High School, in 2009. “I was supposed to be a statistic.”

Instead, she clawed her way through challenges with ambition and tenacity. Though shy, she discovered a gift for public speaking after an assignment her junior year of high school. But that gift took some time to bloom. When she graduated in 1986, college wasn’t an immediate concern. She worked low-wage jobs to make ends meet, including at a local Payless Shoes, where she met her husband Jeffery Turner. Eventually, though, she enrolled in community college and received an associate’s degree. She went on to earn a master’s in History in 1997 from Cleveland State University.

Her first taste of politics came during an internship with state senator and future Dayton Mayor Rhine McLin. She ran for Cleveland City Council in 2001 and lost, but tried again, winning a seat in 2004. By 2008, she was in the state Senate after Democrat Lance Mason resigned his seat to take another position. Turner was beginning to be heralded by Democrats as a promising young star in the party. She was elected whip, or the party’s motivator in the Senate, in 2010. ©

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