What was Bakari Sellers thinking in Ohio 11?

In an interview, the mainstream Democrat and pro-Israel advocate explains his support for progressive stalwart Nina Turner

Bakari Sellers, the former South Carolina state legislator who has appeared frequently at AIPAC events and is a close ally of Vice President Kamala Harris and other establishment Democratic figures, turned some heads when he threw his weight behind Nina Turner, the outspoken progressive candidate and prominent Bernie Sanders surrogate, in Ohio’s recent hotly contested 11th Congressional District special election.

Sellers, who has openly criticized Sanders on social media, seemed to be making an unusual statement as he campaigned for Turner last week in Cleveland on the eve of the primary. 

Mainstream Democrats, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the influential House majority whip, had given their blessing to Shontel Brown, a Cuyahoga County councilwoman and party chair, who ultimately prevailed over Turner in a remarkable upset. Sellers, who interned for Clyburn in the early aughts, has publicly declared his interest in succeeding the 15-term congressman after he retires from office.

The sizable population of Jewish voters in the district had also expressed their overwhelming support for Brown, the pro-Israel favorite, over Turner, a vocal critic of the Jewish state. 

Sellers, who is closely connected with the pro-Israel community, wasn’t exactly backing a candidate whose Middle East foreign policy views one would expect he’d be eager to see gain prominence in the House, even as he has occasionally found himself at odds with Democratic leadership in recent years.

Cornel West, the public intellectual and former Harvard professor, who supported Turner, campaigned alongside Sellers in the district last week and, in a YouTube interview after the race ended, seemed at pains to make sense of their shared interests.

“He and I did a thing together, you know, and that was a fascinating moment because, I mean, Bakari, he has been so tied to very, very right-wing Jewish lobbyists in terms of money and status and so forth,” West said in pointed comments to progressive talk show host Tim Black. “Very tied to Biden, and of course, you know, very close to Kamala Harris. But he said he loved me and he wanted to come out. Well, the question then becomes, you know, how do you have a campaign that keeps its mold and spiritual content and substance, and yet also has an openness to the Bakari Sellers of the world?”

The 36-year-old lawyer, CNN commentator and memoirist — who is the son of civil rights leader Cleveland Sellers — acknowledged that his alliance with Turner would likely create some tension in a video posted to her Twitter page last Monday.

But he ultimately defended his decision. “I tell people all the time, look, I supported Hillary Clinton in the primary, the list goes on and on and on,” he said alongside Turner. “But the unique thing about all of those things is I support Nina Turner, too.”

Sellers, who has known Turner for years and counts her as a close friend, suggested that his support was borne of a deep and long-standing loyalty as well as a faith in her abilities as a lawmaker.

“She’s somebody who can get it done,” he said of Turner, a former Ohio state senator and Cleveland city councilwoman before she gained prominence on the national stage. “We don’t need on-the-job training. Somebody who can get it done on day one. She’s a fighter and I love her with my whole heart. So people are like, you’re going to Cleveland to support Nina Turner? Who? What! On Twitter they’re going crazy.”

“I’m glad we’re driving them crazy,” Turner said mischievously.

Despite the playful banter, Sellers’s involvement in the high-stakes race was no laughing matter among mainstream Democrats, pro-Israel advocates and others in the district who viewed Turner as a divisive presence within the party, not least because of her harsh criticism of President Joe Biden.

In an interview with Jewish Insider on Monday evening, Sellers elaborated on his seemingly curious commitment to Turner’s failed candidacy. While Sellers said he did not agree with her on every matter, particularly on Israel, he argued that he had hoped to serve as a competing voice who could help influence her policy views, however significantly, in Congress.

“I’ll continue to be pro-Israel, and I’ll continue to be nuanced in my political positions,” he averred. “And people I love, when we disagree, I’ll try to be in the room to help them understand my point of view. I don’t have any regrets.”

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jewish Insider: Tell me about the thought process that went into your support for Nina Turner.

Bakari Sellers: So, first, Twitter is not real life. That’s first. But second, I’ve known Nina for 15, 16 years. I consider her a friend. We reach out to each other often about our respective families. When my daughter was going through her liver transplant, of course, Nina was there. [I worked] with Nina at CNN. We were both young legislators. So we’re friends. I mean, we’re genuinely friends. 

JI: How did you meet her originally?

Sellers: I can’t recall actually. That’s how long it’s been. But I was invited to the Ohio Black Caucus fundraising dinner, where I spoke. She was a state senator. I campaigned for Barack Obama in ’08. I was a part of the YEO, the Young Elected Officials. So that’s what it was. 

When [rapper and activist] Killer Mike made the comments about Jim [Clyburn], I reached out to her. I was like, you know, you’ve got to get that under control. You can’t do things like that or say things like that. I mean, we had those conversations. We’re literally close enough to have those conversations about issues from foreign policy, which is probably why you’re calling, to the issues of just who says what on the campaign trail.

JI: Was she receptive to your entreaties, on Killer Mike in particular?

Sellers: Always. She said to me that she didn’t recognize what was said at the time, and that Michael — she refers to him as Michael; I call him Killer Mike — but she said that Michael wasn’t even trying to disrespect him like that by any stretch. I said, you’ve got to fix it. I don’t know if they ever did. That’s not my business. But those are the types of conversations we had. 

JI: When exactly did you make your endorsement in this race?

Sellers: I never really made an official endorsement. That’s kind of the weird thing. I just donated money to her and came out to see her and retweeted an article. I never really made an endorsement. But she’s a friend. I don’t know what else you want me to say. 

JI: What it was like for you appearing on the campaign trail where some of Turners’ more ardently hard-left supporters like, for example, Cornel West, were also turning up. I don’t know if you saw this, but in an interview after the race was over West expressed surprise that you were rallying behind Turner while describing you as “so tied to very, very right-wing Jewish lobbyists in terms of money and status and so forth.”

Sellers: I don’t have shit to say about Cornel West. If Cornel West runs for office I won’t be there standing by him. To be honest with you, I’m a child of the civil rights movement, and I’m also very, very, very pro-Israel. I think you know that. I think everybody acknowledges that. You know, I don’t have a lot of respect for individuals who — I didn’t see the clip; I heard about it — but we were there for a singular purpose. I was there because I love Nina, and I don’t want to dignify Cornel. You know, at one point, Cornel utilized antisemitism as political currency a lot like [former President] Donald Trump used racism. Now, it’s pretty fair to say that Cornel West is an antisemite just like Donald Trump is a racist.

JI: Given those feelings, your affinity for Turner must have been pretty overwhelming.

Sellers: Human beings are more nuanced than that, and I believe that on the issues of foreign policy, particularly when it comes to Israel, we have to have people in the room who can have conversations. I just wanted to be somebody in the room who could give her another perspective. Whether or not I pulled her one way or another, I don’t know. But on the issue of Israel, I wanted to give her another perspective if possible. 

JI: Did you have any conversations with her about Israel?

Sellers: I mean, we love each other. So yeah, you know, there isn’t anything that’s off limits with us.

JI: The Jewish community and the pro-Israel community in the district rallied pretty hard behind Shontel Brown in this race. There was a moment in May, during the conflict between Israel and Hamas, when Brown put forward a pretty direct statement defending Israel’s “right to defend its citizens,” which we published, while Turner retweeted a comment from IfNotNow likening Israel to an apartheid state.

Sellers: Yeah, I mean, that’s bullshit. Look, Nina and I disagree on that issue wholeheartedly. But if we’re going to continue to move the ball forward on this issue and continue to make it a nonpartisan ideal, then some of us are going to have to, especially when we have friends in the race, take those chances and see what happens. 

I appreciate your questions, but I would tell you, while I was supporting Nina, I also hosted an event for [Rep.] Richie Torres. I think politics is more complicated than that, and whatever banter Cornel or anybody else wants to lay on me, I’ll continue to be pro-Israel, and I’ll continue to be nuanced in my political positions, and people I love, when we disagree, I’ll try to be in the room to help them understand my point of view. I don’t have any regrets. 

JI: What do you make of Shontel Brown? Do you think she’ll be a good congresswoman?

Sellers: Oh, I love her. Both of them had huge, huge shoes to fill. I’m a part of a Black cohort of individuals who are pro-Israel. I just was one of the 300 who supported Nina. They were campaigning for her. I mean, Black folk ain’t monolithic. Politics isn’t “pick this” or “pick that.” And I think she’s going to be great. They were both going to have to fill Marcia Fudge’s shoes, which were huge. But she’s going to do fine. I’m going to donate to her and give her money.

JI: Have you spoken to her?

Sellers: I texted with her. I haven’t spoken to her. We tweeted the night she won, and she responded. Listen, I think she’s going to be good. I don’t know her. I have 15 years-plus of history with Nina. So when she runs for re-election I’ll put on my Shontel Brown T-shirt. 

JI: Were you surprised Turner lost?

Sellers: I was, I was, I was. I just think that there were some things she couldn’t overcome. I think that there was a huge Achilles heel with the progressive left. But like I said on my podcast, not Monday but last Thursday, you know, a lot of the reasons that we’re having conversations around student loan debt, universal health care, climate change are because of Nina’s push in the progressive left. The same day Nina lost you had Joe Biden extend the eviction moratorium because of the efforts of [Rep.] Cori Bush. For some reason I’m not somebody who believes that you’ve got to put people in a particular box. I am surprised she lost. I think if she could have taken back the criticisms, in the way that she made them of Joe Biden, she would. I think that if she could have taken back the criticism of Killer Mike, she would. But in politics, you can’t. I think that Shontel ran a flawless campaign, and I think that Nina had too many missteps.

JI: What kind of impact in the race would you attribute to spending from groups like Democratic Majority for Israel, which put up more than $2 million boosting Brown.

Sellers: They played their role. They played their part. But at the end of the day, that’s not why anybody won or lost. It was a hyperlocal campaign. When you’re on the ground, people, people care about the issues, and I think that Nina kind of accidentally took a bet on the Democratic Party and its popularity and underestimated how popular it was, maybe. You know, I’ve been called all types of names. It’s kind of funny. But I am a Democrat. I love Hillary Clinton. I absolutely adore Kamala Harris. I just supported Nina Turner. 

JI: Given your close connection with the pro-Israel community, did you find yourself on the receiving end of any pushback of criticism because of your support for Turner?

Sellers: No, I mean, they know where I am, and they know that if she would have won, and I had an opportunity to speak to Congresswoman Turner, then I would be one of the voices in the room that says we need to talk about the fact that Israel has a right to defend itself. Whether or not that voice would have won over, I don’t know. But we would have had a voice in the room. We wouldn’t have been locked out of the room. And I think that’s important in this. We have to do a better job of meeting people where they are. We have to be voices in all rooms. And I’m not concerned about that because people know — I mean, like I said, I hosted an event for Richie Torres the same time I supported Nina, so I’m not concerned about that. 

JI: What about your decision to campaign for Turner just a day after Jim Clyburn was in the district stumping for Brown? Was that tense for you?

Sellers: No. Me and Jim, we love each other. We go way back. He’ll give me hell when I see him. I haven’t seen him since. But he’ll give me hell. He’s 2-0 against me. I supported Karen Carter Peterson and Nina Turner; he supported Troy Carter and Shontel Brown. He won both of those races, so he gets the one-up on me. 

JI: Have you talked to him since the election?

Sellers: No. You know, I worked for Jim back in ’03. My father is one of Jim’s heroes. So it is what it is. We go beyond one race in the 11th district. And one of the things that people have to realize is that the winner of that race is just number 435. It’s not the future of the Democratic Party as people try to make it out to be.

JI: All things considered, are there any lessons, however small, that you feel we can draw from this race?

Sellers: The lessons are, campaigns are won on the ground. You’ve got to meet people where they are. You’ve got to knock on doors. Shontel had a stronger campaign, and if the race was probably a week early Nina probably would have pulled it off. There are a lot of lessons. But the lesson that you should not take from this is that all of a sudden the heart of the Democratic Party was on the line. That’s just not true.

JI: You’ve previously expressed interest in running for office again after Clyburn retires, though it’s unclear when that day will come as he recently announced that he will run for re-election next cycle. Any updates on your end?

Sellers: You know, I have twins. I would love to be the congressman from the 6th Congressional District. Will that time ever — how about this: There are a ton of people in the cemetery who thought they were going to replace [former Sen.] Strom Thurmond, and he outlived them all. So every time I shake Jim Clyburn’s hand I check his pulse, and we’ll just see what happens. 

JI: You would never mull a primary challenge?

Sellers: Against Jim?

JI: Yes.

Sellers: No. Now don’t print everything else and not print that part!

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