Turner adds new item to his to-do list: Lt. Governor post

MIDDLEBURY — Don Turner must be glad there aren’t more than 24 hours in a day. If there were, he’d have more time in which to cram additional public service and business activities into an already otherworldly schedule.
Turner, 54, is currently a Realtor, landlord, firefighter, fire instructor, justice of the peace, fire warden, rescue squad volunteer, town manager and lawmaker — all for his hometown of Milton.
Now the man with many titles is looking to shed one and add another. He’s stepping down as a longtime representative of the Chittenden-10 House district — and as minority leader of the Republican Caucus — to run for lieutenant governor. He’s challenging incumbent Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, P-Hinesburg.
Turner recently sat down with the Addison Independent to discuss his campaign priorities for the state. He pledged to replicate for all Vermonters the service he’s been giving to Milton for more than three decades.
“I’ve been on call for Milton my entire life; now I want to be on call for the entire state,” Turner said.
It was in February of 2006 that Turner entered politics — and not by his own initiative. Then-incumbent Chittenden-10 Rep. Doran Metzger, R-Milton, had to resign from the House in light of his deployment to Iraq. Then-Gov. James Douglas, a Middlebury Republican, was aware of Turner’s many contributions to Milton, and asked him if he’d be interested in serving out Metzger’s term until the next election.
Turner had never before served in elected office and said he’s never declared a party preference. But he was intrigued by the prospect of becoming a lawmaker, so he interviewed with Douglas.
“The first question he asked me was, ‘Are you Republican?’” Turner recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’”
Turner found his views on budgeting, taxation, economic development and other issues matched the Vermont GOP’s priorities. So he joined the House under the Republican banner and was re-elected in his own right — six times.
In 2011, House Republicans picked Turner to be their leader and therefore the face of the minority party in the Legislature’s largest chamber. He accepted the job and has served in that capacity ever since.
Turner, in concert with his family, decided last year that this would be his last term in the House. He believed he’d earned the respect of his colleagues and helped make the Republican caucus a solid “voice of opposition” on a political landscape in which the GOP is vastly outnumbered by the Democratic majority.
“It was time to move on,” Turner said.
But it was around three months ago that he began to see a new role for himself in state government.
With considerable encouragement from his Republican colleagues, Turner agreed to challenge incumbent Lt. Gov. Zuckerman.
“I had people telling me, ‘You’ve worked so hard and have so much experience, and you’re at a point where you have a platform,” Turner recalled. “We need you.”
He sized up the lieutenant governor’s job, a role he believes he could perform well while continuing a lot of what he’s currently doing in Milton.
“My wife was OK with it,” Turner said of his new political goal. “But I wanted to make sure I had a path to victory.”
Turner believes he has that path, and he’s touring the state on his campaign bus to discuss his priorities, which include the familiar mantra of Republican Gov. Phil Scott: “no new taxes or fees,” reducing the cost of living, creating jobs and finding efficiencies in state government.
“We need to figure out how to turn around the economy so we can employ our young people and keep them in Vermont,” Turner said. “I want our kids to stay here.”
He believes Vermont should devote more of its public school dollars to literacy, math and science offerings, and that students should be increasingly encouraged to explore careers in trades, such as plumbing and electrical work.
“Education spending is not sustainable in our current system,” Turner said. “We’ve lost 30,000 kids (in the past 20 years), have the second-highest per-pupil costs in the country, and I want those dollars to be spent better than they are today.”
Having been involved with emergency response services for all his adult life, Turner has become familiar with the economic and time-allocation challenges faced by those who serve in those volunteer roles. Firefighters in particular must submit to hundreds of hours of training to remain certified. Departments throughout the state are finding it difficult to attract and retain firefighters, as many potential recruits can’t spare the time needed to train and answer all the calls for service.
With that in mind, Turner pledged to make life a little easier for emergency responders and members of the military, if he’s elected lieutenant governor this November.
He noted Pennsylvania recently passed a law allowing municipalities to offer property tax credits to first responders. He said Vermont should follow suit to “allow our towns and cities to give back to those who already give so much.”
Turner has long advocated for eliminating the tax on military retirement income. A bill that would have brought that about died in committee during this past legislative session.
“I’m committed to working with the governor to reignite this important initiative and give our veterans a break,” he said.
Turner also believes police, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders should receive free hunting and fishing licenses, a benefit currently extended to servicemen and women.
His own firefighter/rescue background has shaped his perspective on the political process in Montpelier.
“When we’re debating an issue in Montpelier, and people are really getting worked up, I kind of take a step back and say, ‘This isn’t life or death,’” Turner said. “I don’t want to belittle the point that everything in Montpelier is important, but it’s not as important as someone who’s trapped in a vehicle who might not live if you don’t get them out of there and get them to the hospital quickly.”
House Republicans will need to pick a new leader to take over for Turner, who’s proud of how he handled the job. He said he never told any of his colleagues how to vote, acknowledging they were each, above all, accountable to their respective constituents.
“As minority leader, I believe I’ve taken the caucus from where it was — being disorganized and unfocused — to a place where we were able to rally around the fiscal issues,” Turner said. “One this I learned is that no matter if you’re an ultra-conservative or a moderate Republican or even an independent Republican, when it comes to money, people were united.”
United enough to sustain Scott’s veto of two consecutive state budgets, he noted. That support will win GOP lawmakers voter support in some circles but animosity in others, come Nov. 6.
“It was difficult this year; there was some dissension in the caucus and disagreement between the caucus and the governor on a number of issues, but we were still able to come together for the good of Vermonters on taxes and cost of living and things like that,” Turner said.
Scott also found himself in the eye of the political storm on gun control. He signed legislation that, among other things, reduces the capacity of firearm magazines and raises the minimum age for buying a firearm to 21. Scott’s opponent in the Aug. 14 primary election, Springfield Republican Keith Stern, hoped to garner big support from fellow gun rights activists on election day (Scott won the primary election).
Turner praised Scott for standing behind his beliefs on making what, for some, were some unpopular decisions.
“I think the governor did what he thought was right,” Turner said. “I give this governor credit; he’s taken stands on some issues he thought were right, whether it might cost him votes or not. I have respect for someone who’s willing to say, ‘This is what I think is right… I know it might cost me some votes in the future, but I’m doing it because I think this is what I need to do.’”
While not involved in Tuesday’s primary elections, Turner has been reaching out to Vermonters as much as his busy Milton schedule will allow. He said he’s grateful to his wife, Gail, their three daughters and his helpers for allowing him to pursue a new political challenge.
“The only way I’ve been able to do all this stuff is because of the support I’ve had from my wife and kids and my family,” Turner said. “I’ve had lots of support, and it extends up through the fire department.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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