Shontel Brown’s number is seven in Ohio 11

In final days of heated special election, the Cleveland candidate is drawing on the spiritual number

As the competitive Democratic primary in Cleveland’s highly anticipated special election comes to its climactic end on Tuesday, Shontel Brown, a top contender among more than a dozen candidates vying for the rare open House seat, is drawing strength from an unlikely source: the number seven.

It is a meaningful figure for many devout Christians like Brown, who volunteers as a youth ministry leader at a Baptist church in Mount Pleasant. But the Cuyahoga County party chair and councilwoman claims a more personally spiritual connection than most — originating somewhat auspiciously with her first election a decade ago, when she prevailed by a mere seven votes. “I was actually down by six and convinced I would never run for public office again,” Brown recalled in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “When the tide shifted and I ended up winning by seven, I saw that as a clear sign or affirmation that this was preordained or a calling for me.”

Brown, 46, sees further evidence for that hunch now that she has emerged as a leading candidate in the heated battle to succeed former Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), who left the seat in March to become secretary of housing and urban development. Brown, who counts Fudge as a crucial early mentor, points out, with more than a trace of mysticism, that she is currently engaged in her seventh bid for public office, while noting that early voting in the special election, which ends today, began on July 7. “As a child of faith,” she said, the pattern “represents perfection, completion and God.”

On the stump, Brown likes to invoke this numerical triad as an encouraging omen in her bid to represent Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, encompassing most of Cleveland as well as a sliver of Akron and the suburbs in between. In many instances, the Cleveland native has found a receptive audience, according to voters who have witnessed her in action. “It really touches,” said Jessica Cohen, an Orthodox Jewish Democrat in Cleveland Heights. “I’ve heard people really be moved by it after hearing her story.”

Such reactions underscore the manner in which Brown has woven deeply felt religious convictions into her campaign, which has always represented something of a leap of faith. With just a day remaining until the election, Brown will need to continue to make up ground if she has any hope of defeating Nina Turner, a 53-year-old former Ohio state senator and outspoken presidential campaign surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who has amassed a multi-million dollar warchest while leading most polls in recent months. 

But while Turner was until recently the undisputed frontrunner, the primary contest has tightened in recent weeks as Brown has found some late momentum thanks to an onslaught of hefty independent expenditures from outside groups as well as a series of high-profile endorsements from powerful establishment Democrats like Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the House majority whip, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Last month, the influential political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus, formerly chaired by Fudge, threw its support behind Brown, who, like Turner, is Black.

“Shontel has really made an effort to learn about our community and reached out early on,” said Cohen, who is among several Jewish voters volunteering on Brown’s behalf in the lead-up to the election. “The community valued that.”

The last publicly available poll, conducted in mid-July, put Brown five points behind Turner with 36% of the vote — a significant jump from June, when Turner’s internal data showed a 35-point lead over Brown. The survey was commissioned by Democratic Majority for Israel’s political action committee, which, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission, has poured nearly $2 million into the race in an effort to boost Brown’s campaign.

The primary, whose victor is all but certain to prevail in the general election, has come to embody something of an intra-party skirmish between competing moderate and progressive factions of the Democratic Party. 

The race also highlights widening divisions over the future of American foreign policy toward Israel — a matter of significant concern for the district’s sizable population of Jewish voters, the largest in Ohio. Turner, for her part, supports conditioning aid to the Jewish state and criticized Israel during the recent conflict with Hamas, retweeting a social media post likening Israel to an apartheid state. While Turner expressed her opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in a March candidate forum hosted by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, she initially refused to reveal her stance on the issue when pressed in an interview with JI this past winter.

“From a foundational perspective, it’s just a free speech issue for me,” Turner said at the time. “I haven’t taken it any further than that.”

Brown supports continued security assistance for the Jewish state, rejects the BDS movement as antisemitic and defended Israel’s “right to defend its citizens” from Hamas’s rocket attacks as violence escalated in May, when she stood with the local Jewish community at a pro-Israel rally in Cleveland organized by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Israeli-American Council. In 2018, Brown visited Israel on a trip sponsored by the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation. “It gives you a much greater and tangible and realistic appreciation for the vulnerability of this state,” Brown told JI in February.

Congressional candidate Nina Turner speaks during a Get Out the Vote rally at Agora Theater & Ballroom on July 31, 2021, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Credit: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The contrast between Turner and Brown over Israel has presented many local Jewish voters with what they characterized in interviews with JI as an obvious choice this election. Within the past few months, Cleveland’s Jewish community appears to have united behind Brown, thanks in large part to her foreign policy views. But those who have come to support her also point out that she has actively courted their vote. “Shontel has really made an effort to learn about our community and reached out early on,” said Cohen, who is among several Jewish voters volunteering on Brown’s behalf in the lead-up to the election. “The community valued that.” 

“The U.S.-Israel relationship is very important to many of the constituents in the district,” Brown told JI, adding that rising incidents of antisemitism have also come up in her conversations with Jewish voters. “Having two candidates, one who has been clearly supportive of the Jewish community and one who has not, has been, I think, largely the reason why you see much of the community coalescing around my candidacy.”

Turner has published advertisements in the local Cleveland Jewish News, which has also run some supportive letters, but the level of direct outreach from her campaign remains unclear. “We haven’t heard a thing from her,” said Cohen, who nevertheless remembers Turner, her old state senator, as attentive on school choice issues within the Orthodox community. Still, Cohen believes that Turner’s politics have changed since she left office in 2014 and entered the national stage following a failed bid for Ohio secretary of state.

Turner’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Marty Gelfand, an attorney and Jewish community leader in Cleveland Heights, contested the view that Jewish voters aren’t enthusiastic about Turner, whom he is vociferously backing. While Gelfand, a former local councilman, acknowledged that the organized Jewish community is largely turning out for Brown, he argues that “rank-and-file” Jewish voters “are probably across the board” when it comes to support for either candidate. “There’s strong support for Nina Turner in the Jewish community,” he said. “It’s just not as public.”

“Nina Turner, she’s not Ilhan Omar,” said Gelfand, noting that he disagrees with Omar, a hard-left Democrat from Minnesota who supports BDS, over Israel and wouldn’t vote for her if she were running in the district. “When I read her Middle East agenda, I saw balance,” he said of Turner. “I saw that she supports Israel, she opposes BDS, she wants peace and justice for all, all the parties, and I think that might make some people nervous.”

“I said we’ve got to get our tuchuses in gear and do something,” he told JI in a recent interview about his efforts. “The Jewish vote could really be the difference.”

Turner has characterized her congressional bid “as an extension of a ministry,” indicating that she will seek to push the party leftward on issues like healthcare, climate change and foreign policy while casting herself as a future member of “the Squad,” the prominent coalition of House progressives including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). Though she compared voting for President Joe Biden to eating a “bowl of shit” in an interview with The Atlantic last year, Turner adopted more even-handed rhetoric in campaign mode rather than risk alienating supporters of the president who live in the heavily Democratic district.

But for a large portion of Jewish voters in the district, her stance on Israel — and a number of other progressive causes — goes too far. Jewish supporters of Brown’s campaign are particularly energized in the lead-up to the primary, motivated by a belief that the stakes are higher than usual this election. “They understand it’s rare to get an open seat race and that whoever wins has the major advantage of incumbency going forward,” said Howie Beigelman, the executive director of the nonprofit Ohio Jewish Communities. “And they know this too: communities that vote are the communities that get heard by their public officials on the issues that matter.”

During an off-cycle primary at the beginning of August, when turnout is expected to be abysmal, the approximately 20,000 Jewish voters who make up about 5% of the total electorate in the majority-Black district could help propel Brown across the finish line. “It’s possible Jewish voters in the Cleveland area could be decisive,” said Dave Wasserman, the House elections forecaster for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Most Jewish voters are Democrats, but most aren’t super-left progressive activists either. That works in Shontel Brown’s favor.”

Seth Corey, a doctor who appears to be the only Jewish candidate in the race, claims that Jewish voters in the district have also been receptive to his message. “Cleveland’s Jews appreciate that I am the only one with a positive record of 30 years’ commitment of activism and support for Judaism, Jewish causes, and pro-Israel causes,” he told JI in a recent enail exchange. “They have responded very positively to me and my ground team.”

But Brown’s campaign is undoubtedly receiving the most meaningful support from Jewish community members. Rabbi Pinchas Landis, an Orthodox leader in University Heights, has been vigorously boosting Brown over the past few months, promoting her campaign on social media, cutting an endorsement video and creating a website so Jewish voters can learn more about the race. “I said we’ve got to get our tuchuses in gear and do something,” he told JI in a recent interview about his efforts. “The Jewish vote could really be the difference.”

According to Landis, who volunteers for Brown’s campaign, there are 1,650 Orthodox Jewish households in the district with at least one registered voter, representing a possible voting bloc of 3,000 to 5,000 Brown supporters. As of Wednesday, Landis said, he had convinced 1,000 Jewish community members to cast their vote. Since Ohio operates on an open primary system, Landis and his team of canvassers were, he said, also able to persuade a number of Republicans that they should vote for Brown because the GOP candidate has little to no chance of winning in the general election. 

“Very few people, even the most avid Trump supporter people, had an issue,” said Yechiel Lerner, a 19-year-old yeshiva student from Maryland who spent a week campaigning for Brown last month in Cleveland. 

Cuyahoga Councilwoman and Congressional Candidate Shontel Brown speaks as Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) claps during Get Out the Vote campaign event at Mt Zion Fellowship on July 31, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Credit: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

For Lerner, who went door-knocking in the district with two friends in mid-July, it was important that Brown had been to Israel. “It sounded like she definitely cared and that Israel wasn’t just a talking point to get her the votes she was going to need,” he told JI. “The way she described being in the Golan Heights, and her being a woman of faith and what it meant for her to be there, resonated.”

Brown said she will remain committed to the U.S.-Israel relationship if she is elected to the House. “I’m a person that really makes a very intentional effort to be consistent, so I’m not one that says things that I can’t continue,” she said. “What you see is what you get.”

Pro-Israel advocacy groups have also been pouring money into the race, including the political arms of JDCA and Pro-Israel America, both of which have endorsed Brown. Last week, JDCA launched a five-figure ad campaign in support of Brown, targeting Jewish voters in the Cleveland area, and PIA says it has raised $800,000 through its grassroots donor network while also sending text messages, making phone calls and reaching voters through educational billboards in the district. 

DMFI PAC has been most active in the race, running phone banks for Jewish voters while placing ads in the local Jewish press, among other things, according to a spokesperson. Last month, the group distributed a mailer suggesting that Turner was against raising the minimum wage, universal healthcare and immigration reform because of her opposition to the 2020 Democratic Party platform. The mailer, which DMFI has defended, was criticized as misleading.

Shirley Smith, a former Ohio state senator also running in the Democratic primary, took issue with the tenor of DMFI’s more broadly targeted advertising in the race. “DMFI, allegedly, continues to buy ads for one of the candidates that are horrendous and hurtful to other Black women,” she charged in an email to JI. “To display our women in this light is unconscionable because, again, they would never allow this kind of rhetoric in their community and about their women.”

Shontel Brown with canvassers (Courtesy)

The race has veered into increasingly nasty territory in the final stretch as party divisions have come to the forefront and attack ads have flourished. Just last week, Turner’s campaign promoted an incendiary 30-second TV spot claiming that Brown “is facing investigation by the Ohio Ethics Commission for voting to give millions of dollars to a company connected to her boyfriend and family.” 

The ad goes on to allege that Brown “could face criminal charges, and if convicted, jail time,” though there is no evidence to support that claim, despite a recent report, widely distributed on social media, citing emails demonstrating that such allegations were reviewed by the state auditor’s office and referred to the ethics commission — which a spokesperson “would not confirm or deny.”

Brown dismissed the ad in the interview with JI on Saturday morning before a long day of campaigning. “The things that she’s alleging are actually impossible. It’s ironic she’s championed for being this person that led the initiative to form this new government that was supposed to end corruption,” Brown said, referring to a major overhaul of the Cuyahoga County government championed by Turner, at great risk to her career, as a state senator in 2009. “Yet she’s saying I’m corrupt and somehow I am a mastermind and able to be corrupt in a system that no longer allows it.”

“It’s a sign of desperation, and also, I feel like, is a distraction,” Brown added. “She wants people to talk about that instead of the issues. I’ve been hyper-focused on running on my record, running a positive and clean campaign and focusing on the issues. So I just see it as a sign of desperation and the fact that she sees this race quickly, quickly, quickly slipping away from her.”

At a campaign rally in Cleveland on Saturday, Turner, who has found herself playing defense over the past month or so, took a shot at her opponents’ allies as she made her case to voters. “Why are they spending all of that money on little old me?” she said alongside a group of prominent allies, including Sanders and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. “They like the way things are now.”

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Congressional Candidate Nina Turner, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Dr. Cornell West march with supporters after a Get Out the Vote rally on July 31, 2021, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Credit: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Establishment Democrats also descended on Cleveland this weekend to gin up support for Brown, who has repeatedly cast herself as a faithful party member who respects her elders and is eager to advance Biden’s agenda. “I’m here today to bring up the child,” Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH), who chairs the CBC, said on Saturday at a church event in Cleveland, anointing Brown as the rightful heir in a long line of influential Black leaders who have presided over the district. “I’m here today to bring up Shontel Brown.”

Beatty’s benediction was no doubt consequential in the final days of the race, as Brown still appears to be operating at a disadvantage. In the last publicly available internal poll from her campaign, in early July, Brown pulled in 36% of the vote, 7 points behind Turner. 

Brown, however, is almost certainly regarding that seemingly providential deficit with a sense of optimism.
“Nothing that I ever expected as a young adult said politics would be in my future, so having had successful races, a trend of being undefeated, and this race, hopefully, will be no different,” said Brown, a former marketing professional. “I feel very closely encouraged and connected to the number seven.”

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