Shontel Brown defeats Nina Turner with support from Cleveland’s Jewish community

In victory speech, Brown thanked 'my Jewish brothers and sisters.'

In a remarkable upset, Shontel Brown prevailed on Tuesday night in the hotly contested special primary election for an open House seat in Cleveland, notching a symbolic win for the establishment wing of the Democratic Party while stymying its left-wing flank.

Brown’s come-from-behind victory over Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and prominent progressive, represents an extraordinary turnaround for the Cuyahoga County councilwoman and party chair. Brown, 46, had struggled to gain traction until the final weeks of the race, which played out on the national stage as a tense and high-profile proxy battle between warring Democratic factions.

While most polling suggested that it was Turner’s race to lose, Brown gained momentum near the end of the primary as she accumulated a slew of major endorsements while benefiting from hefty independent expenditures boosting her campaign. The powerful political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus threw its weight behind Brown — who, like Turner, is Black — in early July, following endorsements from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) and several pro-Israel House Democrats

In an interview with Jewish Insider on Saturday, Brown acknowledged that such backing contributed to her late surge. But she argued that her campaign had already built meaningful support within the district “long before any of those folks gave us their” endorsements. “We had over 100 local elected officials, over 50 prominent clergy members, and a number of union leaders, locally, had already gotten fully behind my candidacy early on,” Brown told JI. “We saw that as our path to victory.”

Facing a steep fundraising deficit in competition with Turner’s sizable warchest, Brown’s campaign was also buoyed by outside groups including Democratic Majority for Israel, whose political action committee swept into the race in June and ultimately spent more than $2 million on TV advertising, direct mailers and other promotional efforts.

The race to succeed former Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), who vacated the seat in March for a Cabinet position in the Biden administration, underscored a growing divide between different ideological factions within the Democratic Party as the 2022 midterms come into view. 

Turner, 53, was backed by Justice Democrats, the formidable political group that is already backing several left-wing challengers in upcoming House primaries, as well as leading progressive lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), both of whom descended on Cleveland in the final days of the primary.

Brown, a Fudge protegé who cast herself as eager to build on the policy objectives of the Biden administration, drew a sharp contrast with Turner, who once compared voting for Biden to eating a “bowl of shit,” a comment that would dog her campaign throughout the election. Turner downplayed such rhetoric throughout most of the primary, but she came to embrace her combative side as the election came to a close.

“We got some folks rattled,” Turner boasted at a campaign event on Monday. “But I’m glad they’re rattled. I want them to be uncomfortable.”

In her concession speech on Tuesday evening, Turner was less self-assured but vowed to keep fighting even if she would not be joining her progressive allies in the House. “I am going to work hard to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen to another progressive candidate again,” she said. “We didn’t lose this race, evil money manipulated and maligned this election.” 

But her focus on outside money — a source of several controversial attack ads, from supporters of Brown and Turner, that came under scrutiny during the election — obscured other efforts on the ground that almost certainly played a part in influencing the outcome of the race.

Jewish community members in the district, who represent a sizable and politically active voting bloc, were particularly energized by Brown’s candidacy. In May, amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas, Brown defended Israel’s “right to defend its citizens” in a statement to JI that many Jewish voters appreciated as the conflict coincided with an uptick in antisemitic attacks. 

By contrast, Turner, who has called for conditioning aid to the Jewish state, retweeted a social media post accusing Israel of apartheid during the conflict.

“The U.S.-Israel relationship is very important to many of the constituents in the district,” Brown, who was proactive in her outreach to Jewish voters in the district, said in the recent interview with JI. “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’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

For many Jewish community members, the race came to signify deepening divisions over Israel within the Democratic Party, and so they sprang into action on Brown’s behalf, engaging voters in traditionally Jewish strongholds like Beachwood, University Heights and Cleveland Heights. 

Rabbi Pinchas Landis, an Orthodox Jewish spiritual leader in Cleveland, said he had never been politically active before he began volunteering for Brown’s campaign last spring, motivated by what he viewed as the high stakes of a race carrying significant implications for the future of American foreign policy toward Israel.

Landis told JI in an interview last week that he had helped turn out 1,000 Orthodox voters, Democrats and Republicans alike, for early voting, which began on July 7. Though Landis was on vacation in the Smoky Mountains on Tuesday, a trip he planned with his family before he was even aware of Brown’s candidacy, he was still promoting her in an effort to get out the vote. “Been canvassing via my iPhone all day,” he said in a text message.

Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner is joined on stage by family and campaign volunteers as she gives a concession speech after losing to Cuyahoga County Council member Shontel Brown in a special primary at The Lanes on August 03, 2021 in Maple Heights, Ohio. Today’s primary was triggered after former U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge joined the Biden administration to become housing secretary. Turner and Brown were the frontrunners among 11 other Democrats in the race. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Over the last month or so, Jewish canvassers aggressively targeted the estimated 1,650 Orthodox households in the district with at least one registered voter, making up a potential pool of 3,000 to 5,000 Brown supporters. “We have been encouraging everyone to go to vote and we feel like the message has been heard,” Jessica Cohen, a Brown campaign volunteer who lives in Cleveland Heights, said in a text exchange with JI on Tuesday. “We will keep at it until the polls close at 7:30 p.m.” 

The results indicated that those efforts had likely paid off. Beachwood, University Heights and Cleveland Heights were among the cities in the district with the highest turnout, according to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. “The local community should be proud of their efforts,” said Howie Beigelman, executive director of the nonprofit Ohio Jewish Communities. “They prove that an engaged, motivated and informed electorate still matters even in an age of hyper-siloed, echo-chambered social media. Perhaps especially so.”

Ron Ratner, a prominent Cleveland philanthropist and businessman, agreed. “There’s all this national noise, but I think this came down to specific issues in terms of what mattered to people in this district,” he told JI in a phone interview with JI on Tuesday night after Brown won. “My guess is that the Jewish vote was significant,” added Ratner, who supported Brown’s campaign. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a higher percentage of the primary vote that was cast today.”

“This is a remarkable achievement for the Jewish community as a whole,” Ezra Stark, a Cleveland-based real estate developer and Brown backer, told JI. “This is the first time as a native Clevelander I can remember Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, non-affiliated Jews joining together for one single cause and showing solidarity behind one single candidate and showing what the Jewish voting power is.”

Jewish groups from outside the district also touted their efforts following Brown’s victory on Tuesday. “Voter turnout in areas with large Jewish populations was — on average — double the overall turnout in the district,” Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said in a statement. JDCA, which endorsed Brown in July, launched a five-figure ad campaign last week targeting the 22,000 Jewish voters who make up about 5% of the electorate in the majority-Black district. “The results speak for themselves and it’s clear the Jewish vote made a critical difference for Shontel Brown in this close race,” Soifer said.

“Brown’s significant and consistent lead throughout the night proves once again that support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is not only good policy, but good politics,” Jeff Mendelsohn, executive director of Pro-Israel America, said in a press release. PIA’s political arm raised $800,000 for Brown’s campaign while reaching voters through text messages, phone calls and billboards, according to Mendelsohn. “Brown rejected the divisive politics of her opponent and, as voters learned more about Brown and her policy positions throughout the race, they increasingly supported her campaign,” he said.

Mark Mellman, DMFI’s president, echoed that sentiment in a statement. “Shontel Brown’s victory, as a champion of the U.S.-Israel relationship, reaffirms that being pro-Israel is good politics as well as wise policy,” he said.

Brown, who defeated a dozen candidates in the crowded primary, will face off against Republican businesswoman Laverne Gore in the November special election. Brown is all but assured victory in Ohio’s heavily Democratic 11th Congressional District, which in addition to Cleveland includes a slice of Akron.

On Tuesday night, Brown recounted her first experience traveling through Israel in 2018, a trip she has described as foundational. “You can appreciate the vulnerability of the state, and that has given me the understanding of the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Brown told supporters in an enthusiastic victory speech. “I thank my Jewish brothers and sisters.”

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