Eric Turkington: Looking back, moving on
On Nov. 3, 1988, five days before Eric Turkington was elected to the first of 10 terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, The Times wrote in an editorial: "Eric Turkington has been interested in our problems and knowledgeable about possible solutions... We think he will be a strong voice, while remaining receptive to the opinions and ideas of his constituents."
Dukes County voters apparently agreed, giving Mr. Turkington a commanding victory over his two opponents. And many of those voters still agree. Chaired by Barbara Day and Russell Smith, a committee of Islanders has organized an appreciation of Mr. Turkington's service to the Island, to be held this Sunday, Sept. 21, from 4 to 6 pm at the Ag Hall in West Tisbury. "The party is not a fundraiser or a political event of any kind, just a thank you to Eric," according to the organizers.
At times running unopposed, Mr. Turkington's grip on his seat only got firmer over time. "By the end, I carried the Vineyard two to one, and Nantucket and Falmouth three to one," he said in a conversation with The Times last week. "Seventy percent over all, which was fine with me."
So it was something of a surprise when he announced in February that he was not going to run for re-election this year. "For me, 20 years feels about right," he wrote his constituents, borrowing from Thomas Jefferson to explain his decision: "There is a fullness of time when men should go, and not occupy too long the ground to which others have the right to advance."
But he's not heading for the hammock just yet. Instead, he is running for Register of Probate in Barnstable County, a fresh experience and application of his legal training.
When asked about his initial interest in politics, he recalled his teenage years. "I'd been class president a couple of times in high school," he said, "and I worked for the school paper at the University of Pennsylvania during the late sixties - very political times."
After law school he settled back into Falmouth, his hometown, and started practicing law. Soon he was drawn into local politics, but it took a few years for the perfect situation to come along. "They created this new district in 1988 and I'd been a selectman in Falmouth and founder of a local conservation group, and I'd run for state rep on the mainland before," he said. "So this seat came along and I said, this is meant for me."
But there was plenty of work to be done, especially on the Vineyard and Nantucket. "I went over to the Vineyard and enlisted the six people I knew, and that was it," he said. "Bob Morgan put an ad in the paper for me with a bunch of names on it. Turned out most of them were his relatives, but that was the way they did things then."
Now, of course, things are different, but not so much so on the Island, according to Mr. Turkington. "The Vineyard has been lucky," he said. "It has changed less than most places. You have some really valuable things that keep you grounded on that Island, that keep the intrusions of the 21st century from taking over like they have in so many other places... and it's because you wisely put some controls in back when you could."
Though he has held onto his seat relatively easily, representing his district effectively has been a challenge at times. "The biggest fight was New Bedford's effort to get involved with the Steamship Authority," he said. "That took an enormous amount of energy, and it was hard on me because my district was divided on it. It was ugly - a lot of negative energy for a long time. But we came up with a working compromise that's held for five years now."
"And the Southern Woodlands, that was extremely divisive," he said, speaking of the battle over the proposed golf course in Oak Bluffs. "There was a kind of happy ending to that story too, after a lot of rancor."
When asked how thick your skin has to be to stay in politics without becoming cynical or part of the problem, he said, "Part of public life is you put up with this kind of stuff, but you try not to be part of it. You try to keep calm and keep moving ahead."
Mr. Turkington likes to remember less contentious initiatives that have had a lasting positive impact. "The Chilmark library is one where we worked with the selectmen and the state library board and got that project built," he said. "The state has this wonderful program which the Vineyard has taken great advantage of."
Recalling other benefits that he has worked to bring to the Island, Mr. Turkington said, "I've put an earmark in for the Island shellfish propagation every year, and that amounts to a about a quarter million dollars over the last 10 years. And the Martha's Vineyard Commission, I've put up to $300,000 in over the last 10 years. And Lyme disease prevention and education: over a million over the last 10 years. These are some of the small things you can do in a budget for your people."
Mr. Turkington has also had to deal with his share of setbacks. He was particularly disappointed by the defeat of a proposed housing bank, but he couldn't have been too surprised, considering the fierce opposition of the realty industry to deeds excise taxes. "The Island was fortunate that they got the Land Bank deeds excise in place early, in the early 80s," he said.
Given his unique perspective, Mr. Turkington's prognostications about future issues facing the Island carry added weight. "There's always the Steamship. It's been quiet, but it's not always quiet," he said. "The Steamship unions are anxious to make the SSA a subservient part of a larger state transportation entity. That's something to watch out for.
"Another thing that's interesting is this whole wind farm business. Cape Wind is going to be permitted, and...built, I expect.
"Up until now, the rule in Massachusetts has been no structures between the shore and three miles out. But under the Ocean Management Act, which recently passed, these kinds of things are allowed in state waters. There's a study going on for the next year to identify some appropriate places, in their view, for wind farms, and some of them are going to be right up on your coast, and not over the horizon. And the debate is not going to be over the horizon.
"And education funding is always a great source of unhappiness. No question that the Cape and Islands get a lot less than other places from the state."
When asked about representing the Vineyard in general, Mr. Turkington said, "Well, it's an awesome task."
But has it been fun? "Oh absolutely. Every minute I've spent on the Island has been fun, and most of the minutes I've spent in Boston. You have six entities over there, but every one has been great to work with. We have not had a bad moment.
"On the Vineyard you have a lot of people who show up at elections, who participate. The bigger a place gets, the fewer people show up at elections, and pretty soon you've got a city council instead of a town meeting, and pretty soon you've got a mayor. Each step is a step away from local responsibility and local control, from local input and local participation. The rest of the world is losing that, and you're not."
Community Party for Eric Turkington, Sunday, Sept. 21, 4-6 pm, Ag Hall, West Tisbury. Bring finger food to share. For information, call 508-627-8709.