Pursuing justice

Meet Susan Turnbull, highest-ranking Jew in Democratic Party structure.

us special 224 (photo credit: )
us special 224
(photo credit: )
When Susan Turnbull, the 55-year-old Democratic National Committee vice chair with a front row seat for the party's presidential nominating process, is asked to start at the beginning, she conjures up USY. The Conservative movement's youth organization didn't only expose her to competitive office - she was elected chapter president in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio - it was a formative encounter with political engagement. "In many respects, to me being involved in politics is like adult USY, because it is meeting people from all over the place, spending intense weekends with them and doing something that you think is really going to change the world," she says, still able to recall that the theme of the first regional convention she went to, in ninth grade, was the biblical quote "justice, justice thou shall pursue." But Turnbull, the highest-ranking Jew in the Democratic Party structure and a key player in this year's dramatic nominating process, traces her first break into non-sectarian politics to an even more unlikely source: Jerry Springer. Before Springer developed an international reputation for hosting a tabloid TV talk show, he served as a member of the Cleveland city council, where Turnbull had her first internship. "How cool is that? How ridiculous is that?" she asks now with a smile. Enough so that her two sons didn't believe her until, sorting through old boxes in her suburban Maryland home a few years ago, she found the letter of recommendation he wrote for her. From that experience, she says, "I just got hooked." So she moved to Washington after graduation and began working her way up the ranks. Her first job was as the scheduler for Sen. Howard Metzenbaum. In addition to filling out his appointment book, she also fielded calls for the senator's chief of staff, who sat beside her. Several were from a particularly persistent law student looking for a job. "I had talked to him on the phone a gazillion times because Vic [the chief of staff] wasn't calling him back," she recalls. She met the man behind the voice at a staff party later that year - his persistence had paid off - and fell in love. She got married, took another Hill job and soon found herself raising two sons, now in their 20s. Her children were part of the reason she passed up opportunities to run for office herself, including one occasion when a state legislative seat opened up. "If I had been a legislator for my district, I would have been in Annapolis for the three months preceding my son's bar mitzva, and I just didn't want to do that." Instead, she stayed comfortably behind the scenes, joining the Maryland Democrats chapter and moving up through the organization before being elected Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean's deputy in 2005. DID SHE ever imagine reaching such heights? That would be a resounding "no." In fact, Turnbull, with her shock of gray hair and affinity for shawls, attributes her rise to prominence in part to her mom-next-door appeal. Turnbull was serving as the women's chair of the DNC when the Clinton "controversy," as she calls it, broke in the late '90s. She became a vocal opponent of impeachment when Republicans were clamoring for Bill Clinton to be impeached because of charges he lied under oath about having an affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. The 24-hour cable news networks MSNBC and FOXNews were taking off and she became a go-to person in defense of Clinton. ("I didn't marry him. I elected him to be my president," she said then and now.) "I was not a lawyer. I was a mother with high-school students. I lived in the suburbs, and I became a very active spokeswoman against impeachment. I think a lot of that was because I was normal, but I had a title under my name," she surmises. "Because of that I became someone that the media would call. So that sort of catapulted me into a different place." Though the five DNC vice chairs don't officially have different duties, Turnbull has earned the nickname "the cable news vice chair" because of the frequency with which she's on air. Hadar Susskind seconds the opinion that what makes Turnbull stand out is that she doesn't. The Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs had had several pleasant conversations with the genial, down-to-earth "Susie" at local events before someone clued him in to her heady job. "I was surprised when I found out how important she was because she doesn't act like it," he said. And as it happens, the way she first had an impact in his life was by having designed his office, along with other Jewish organizations located in the Hillel headquarters in Washington. Along the way to her current role, Turnbull completed a degree in interior design and does design work in non-election years. (But never on residences; "I don't want to work with people like me on their houses," she explains. "I'm so picky.") "There are many Jewish professionals whose work, whether they know it or not, is influenced by Susie Turnbull," notes Susskind. But professionally, he says, she's no invisible force; in fact, as a JCPA board member, she has played a key role as a "great voice and great representative" for the organization in the corridors of power. Recently, she presided over a meeting while Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan was in town. Despite the other board members' many talents, Susskind intimates, "They're not necessarily comfortable sitting in a room with 15 senators and the Turkish foreign minister. But Susie is." TURNBULL HAS also been crucial in terms of Jewish outreach for the DNC, according to Matt Dorf, who advises the committee on Jewish issues. "The party's outreach and the party's relationship with the Jewish community would not be what they are if Susie Turnbull had not been the chair for the last three years." He points to a period of tension following incumbent Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman's loss to Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary in 2006. Lieberman is a long-standing favorite in the Jewish community, and was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000. Many Jewish DNC members didn't want the party to back Lamont as the bylaws required when it was clear Lieberman would be running as an independent. "There were a lot of strong emotions and Susie was very much able to bring those different groups together," Dorf recounts. Those tensions, of course, were nothing compared to this year's epic primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Despite being a superdelegate - who was deluged with e-mails from voters hoping she would back their candidate - she had to remain neutral as the two battled it out. But she's confident in the Democrats' ability to prevail in November and the Jewish community's support for her party's candidate. "Susie is just legendary for her incredible commitment to the political life of the Democratic Party," says Lori Weinstein, executive director of Jewish Women International, which honored Turnbull when she became DNC vice chair as one of its 10 Women to Watch that year. "She has a warmth and an energy. She believes so deeply in the importance of participating in political life and in being a good citizen and she embodies all of that." Turnbull says that her commitment to the party and civic activism has been reinforced by her personal experiences. Her father suffered a stroke at 70 and her mother, only 59, had to quit work so she could stay home to care for him. As a result, they had to live off social security, which brought home the importance of the social safety net. After his death, her mother got a degenerative muscular disease which confined her to a nursing home for seven years. She ended up dying, though, from breast cancer, found by chance by a nurse's aide once it had reached a very developed stage. Turnbull was horrified to discover that during her seven years in the home - with a history of breast cancer in the family - her mother had never undergone a single check. When two Maryland state legislators visited Turnbull while she was sitting shiva, she mentioned that fact to them, and they suggested the governor would be interested in doing something about it. So Turnbull met with then Maryland governor William Shaefer, who promised to do something. "I remember walking out of governor Shaefer's office and calling my husband on my cellphone," she relates, "and literally saying to him, 'We just saved somebody's life.'" The governor immediately set up a task force and soon after, in 1993, nursing homes made screenings available to their residents. At a ceremony commemorating the change a year later, a nurse told her a woman's life had recently been saved at the place she worked because of the screenings. "That was pretty wow," Turnbull says. "It taught me how the fact that I was involved in politics made this possible, because I knew who to talk to and how to get something done." Not that there had been any question of her quitting the field. "My whole life, I have loved being part of this place where you can change the world, from the ninth grade [message of] 'justice, justice thou shall pursue' at a USY conference."