Susan Turnbull: My LG Candidacy Was Far From ‘Conventional’

Susan W. Turnbull, Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018. File photo.

“Did you see the piece Josh Kurtz wrote about lieutenant governor picks?” my husband Bruce asked the other day [“The Paradox of Finding a Candidate for Lt. Governor,” June 1]. I hadn’t. So, of course, I immediately picked up my phone. I grimaced when I saw an awful picture of myself with Ben Jealous, Jamie Raskin and Justin Fairfax at an event almost three years and many centuries ago.

I told my husband chuckling that if Josh Kurtz was that focused on Justin Fairfax, I had a much better picture with him (tucked away) that I could have shared. Then I read the article and decided that in addition to a better photo, Kurtz could have asked me myriad questions about my experience as a lieutenant governor candidate.

I figured out that I must have been what Kurtz described as a “conventional politician” because in his description of the 2018 Democratic lieutenant governor candidates, I didn’t really fit in any of his other categories especially since I am a silversmith not a craft brewer.

When coincidentally, another Maryland Matters veteran called me the same day about a completely different subject, I couldn’t help but tell him that I found the characterization a bit uncomfortable.

After all, until 2018 I hadn’t run for public office and had been a grass-roots volunteer for the past 40 years. My route to being the 2018 nominee had been in my own eyes as far from conventional. What does conventional even mean?

Yes, people could look and see me only as a Democratic party leader especially if they hadn’t been involved in the national faith-based nonprofits I had led. I had never filed for office before and had consciously chosen not to over the years when opportunities became available.

But, conventional? It is hard to see yourself with that designation.

When I met Ben Jealous for the first time in fall 2017, I had no idea that our conversation would lead to my driving 21,000 miles throughout Maryland the following year. I had no idea that in my future I would spend never-ending hours on the phone asking every person I had ever met (and many that I didn’t know) for contributions to support our ticket and to primarily support Ben, who I didn’t originally even know that well myself.

I never would have guessed that I would have to re-orient my thinking and embrace substantive positions on topics that had not been at the top of my personal agenda.

Most importantly, I didn’t truly understand how being No. 2 on a ticket could be a very lonely place when dealing with campaign staff and consultants totally focused on No. 1 because of the ingrained conviction that absolutely no one votes for a ticket because of the No. 2.

I do agree that should the next lieutenant governor be a Democrat, she likely will be a woman.

The ironic aspect of the 2018 primary that wasn’t noted in the commentary is that the lone male in our 2018 field is now the mayor of Baltimore. But the political calculation will probably mean “gender balance” will be highly recommended.

I think that is what I offered Ben to balance his race, gender, age and perceived lack of Maryland longevity. I was the longtime activist, white and a female, and I was a Jewish mother and grandmother to boot. In many ways we were paired like Georgia Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock before Ossoff and Warnock were elected together in 2021.

Over the year as a LG candidate, it was awkward to understand or accept that what I did was somewhat irrelevant unless I did something totally outrageous or maybe even illegal, unethical or downright stupid. No matter how much I felt that 2018 was another “year of the woman” — and it was for Congress and across Maryland in down-ballot races — it was amazing to me how the press absolutely ignored me even after we had won our primary.

My narrative was only heard when I told it in living rooms and union halls.

I’ll never forget a former Baltimore Sun reporter’s response to me after he had called to ask me a question months after the election.

“I didn’t know that about you,” he said.

I calmly told him he didn’t know because not once had he asked me a question when I had stood next to Ben at dozens of press conferences and at hundreds of events.

“You never asked or mentioned me once,” I told him. It felt validating to hear him acknowledge his slight as I could hear him scrolling through pages of notes on his computer in an effort to review his various articles.

Ben and I had very different stories and together they in many ways flipped the expectations people had of us.

I am the child of an immigrant who grew up in a household where parents worked at minimum wage. I was the one who had started my career college debt after graduation from state universities not elite colleges. I was the one whose parents died after debilitating illnesses that taught me the trials of lack of adequate and affordable health care. And most importantly, I was the one who had worked to change protocols in Maryland nursing homes over 25 years ago to ensure that women would be screened for breast cancer and men for prostate cancer.

In contrast, my value to the campaign often was described in articles as “an experienced fundraiser.”

As gubernatorial candidates are looking for running mates, many in office being considered — you know, “conventional” politicians — will look at Jolene Ivey, Ken Ulman and Susie Turnbull and always wonder: why did she/he change their personal political trajectory run for an office and  that literally has no official responsibilities?

Why did I do it?

I believed in Ben and saw him as a passionate civil rights leader with an impeccable record.

Being his partner offered me a real opportunity to change lives and to truly serve the people of our state. Having advised and worked with politicians for decades and having been the “ghost writer” for so many elected officials in roles going back to 1974, it felt so good to tell my own story and to promote the story of someone I hoped could accomplish big change in how government responds to the neediest among us.

It is a very powerful experience to be the sounding board for the thousands of people I met and to be there to say thank you to the thousands of volunteers who gave up their evenings and weekends to knock on doors and attend events for our campaign.

Of course, I have regrets and disappointments that will always be very personal and private. But it is easy to say that I am still glad I had this incredible experience.

I must admit, however, that I sometimes at odd times wonder what life would have been like if I would have helped Ben find someone else to be his No. 2. It is then that I think about the hours in the car with some very special women who were my companions and sounding boards and the new friendships I made along the way. I think about the education I received in my Maryland government crash course and the satisfaction I have felt when the Democrats in the Maryland legislature enacted much of the platform we had proposed and upheld it over the governor’s vetoes.

I am proud that my bio contains the fact that I was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018.

So, for all my Democratic sisters out there, if you get that call from one of those guys who has decided he is running for governor and you are curious about what running for LG is like, I’m here to listen and if you want, I’ll even help you make your pros and cons list before you likely say yes.

Who knows? At the end of the conversation I might even urge you to run for governor yourself!

–SUSAN W. TURNBULL

The writer was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018.