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Government & Politics

A Conversation With Susie Turnbull: ‘We Are Reaching Hearts and Minds’

Susan W. Turnbull (right) listens to Benjamin T. Jealous at a news conference. File photo

Susan W. Turnbull has been active for decades in state and national politics, including one stint as head of the Maryland Democratic Party and another as deputy chairperwoman of the Democratic National Committee. But her bid for lieutenant governor, on a ticket with Benjamin T. Jealous, marks the first time she’s been a candidate herself.

Maryland Matters senior reporter Bruce DePuyt talked recently with her about their bid to unseat Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. and Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R). We have requested an interview with Rutherford as well.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Maryland Matters: When Ben Jealous selected you to be his running mate, many people were surprised. What made you decide to do this?

Turnbull: Ben. Just like we’re sitting in a coffee shop right now, I was sitting in a coffee shop in Bethesda [when we first met]. And I was still pretty hesitant because I didn’t know Ben. At all. And by the time I walked out of the coffee shop, I walked home, sat down on my couch and said to my husband, ‘I really like this guy. I’m going to support him.’ And that was [based on] one conversation. The night before I had hosted an event for somebody else!

MM: When you say, ‘support,’ do you mean you decided to run with him then?

Turnbull: No, it was just support.

MM: So how did the next step come?

Turnbull: The campaign invited me to come to a polling presentation, and I walked away from that thinking, “This is really winnable. This is really important. I really like this guy.” And then Ben and I had a number of conversations. I literally was suggesting other [potential running mates] to him. But then it was, “well, why wouldn’t I want to do this?”

MM: What was it about him that made you decide to be his running mate?

Turnbull: His role with the NAACP was really impressive to me. Also, his focus on issues like education and health care and the economy and minimum wage — those are issues that are so part of my own narrative, my own history, it’s been this amazing adventure to go back in time, and to think about my parents’ struggles and what got me to where I am.

I’ve spent decades urging other women — and men — to run for office and to work for their passion.

MM: Did you consider him the underdog when you joined the ticket?

Turnbull: At the time, yes. What I also saw was the path. We knew how many people had supported Bernie Sanders [for president in 2016], and Ben was going to capture a huge number of that. And [considering the different voting blocs], I could see it. And then when you add in the angst that is everywhere, you could see how this Democrat at this time with this message could win a race.

MM: Who is feeling angst right now?

Turnbull: Women. Young people who are either living in their parents’ basements or looking for a job. Every new American. School children and parents concerned about gun violence. Everyone who has compassion. A lot of people.

MM: You won the primary by 10 points. A lot of people were surprised. What was primary night like?

Turnbull: Surreal. Our polls showed that this could happen. But we were overwhelmed by the margin and that it was 22 out of 24 jurisdictions. Ben really cares about the people of this state and people who have challenges in their lives. That’s the part of Ben that’s been the most important to me.

MM: For several weeks this summer, the Republican Governors Association was on the air, pounding Jealous, calling him “extreme” and a big-spender. The Hogan campaign was up [with ads] as well. You were not, due to a lack of resources. What was that like?

Turnbull: It was ugly. It was ugly. And it was unexpected at the time, because here is someone [Hogan] who supposedly is ahead. Why would you spend that amount of money and choose Maryland to do that? And my belief is they know that Hogan is vulnerable.

MM: All those attacks essentially went unanswered. It was not a good period for you.

Turnbull: No, it wasn’t. It was uncomfortable. But what I also knew is that while that was happening, we were building an organization. The number of people on the ground, the new allied organizations that have sprung up in the last two years has blown me away. When I go to events and ask, “How many people have never worked on a campaign before?” tons of hands go up. That kind of person-to-person contact is so critically important. And it’s really under the radar. We have over 50 paid organizers but we also have all of these fantastic volunteers.

MM: Fundraising is not a fun part of being a candidate. But many people think that — while you were chosen for many reasons — an ability to help with fundraising was one of them. The Jealous campaign’s fundraising efforts have fallen short and is a factor in the race.

Turnbull: My personal effort has been one that has been really extensive. Our fundraising has been what we need to do. And I think that in 2018, when there is so much attention on national races, particularly taking over the House and Senate, it’s a very competitive market out there.

MM: I’ve talked to many voters who have said, “I’m a Democrat, but I’m voting for Larry Hogan.” Most reporters are hearing the same thing. What would you say to those voters?

Turnbull: The more people know about Larry Hogan, the less they are going to like him. He refused to take a position on [the nomination of Brett M.] Kavanaugh [to the Supreme Court]. He can say, “I don’t have a vote; I’m not a senator.” But the bottom line is when you’re going to talk about values and representing the best of our state, then you show courage. He’s never shown courage.

We’re going to spend the next month making sure that people understand there is a big difference between being a Democrat and being a Republican, and that he’s no moderate. There are no moderates any more. The lines are pretty drawn. And his “popularity” has gotten people nothing. Everything that he has taken credit for has been a Democratic legislature’s action. And when he has had a chance to stand up to Donald Trump, he passed.

MM: Ben Jealous got decent reviews from the one debate. Was it a mistake not to accept the second debate that Hogan was willing to do?

Turnbull: We asked for five.

MM: But at the end of the negotiation, if they were holding on two —

Turnbull: I wish more people would have an opportunity to see Ben. The date Ben was offered was unavailable.

MM: But two would have been better than one.

Turnbull: I found that at the debate, Ben was able to show that Hogan had no plan for education, that his economic plan was non-existent. We are lagging behind in the region and we could be better off than we are.  And every opportunity to make it clear that this former land developer has not managed our state in a way that has moved us forward.

MM: As someone who has worked to build the party at several levels, how frustrating is it to see former Democratic leaders endorse Hogan?

Turnbull: It’s been so limited in scope. I’ve seen this before. When I chaired the party in 2010, I saw it personally. This is nothing new. The defections that we’ve seen are people who have not been supporting the party for a very long time. We’re running to the people.

MM: Earlier you said that when you joined the ticket, you saw a path to victory. Is it still there?

Turnbull: Absolutely, I still see a path. We are reaching hearts and minds. We have a civil rights leader that’s also a businessman and I think we can reach people both through their heart and their head.

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A Conversation With Susie Turnbull: ‘We Are Reaching Hearts and Minds’