Island Teacher Challenges Eric Turkington


The race for Cape and Islands state representative pits an eight-term incumbent Democrat from Falmouth against a Republican high school Spanish teacher from the Vineyard.

Rep. Eric T. Turkington is well known throughout the district that he has served for 16 years. James R. Powell is best known in West Tisbury, where his ancestors reach back to the Mayhews.

"I don't think [Mr. Turkington] is doing enough for our district. He's not hustling enough," Mr. Powell said.

"I don't have to keep it fresh, because the district keeps it fresh," Mr. Turkington countered. "This place and Nantucket and even Falmouth are always giving me new balls to run with, new challenges to try to work on and sell in Boston."

Mr. Powell and Mr. Turkington visited the Gazette office for separate candidate interviews this week. Both talked about their lives, their work and their campaigns for the Cape and Islands seat in the state Legislature.


In 16 years, Mr. Turkington has only faced three contested elections, and each time he won by a greater margin. In 2000 he took 69 per cent of the vote, and did even better on the Vineyard - winning by roughly 78 per cent - than in his home town of Falmouth.

Raised in Falmouth, Mr. Turkington has lived there continuously since graduating from Boston College law school in 1977. A Falmouth selectman from 1979 to 1982, he lost two bids for the state representative seat before winning in 1988.

Mr. Turkington said his district is the envy of his colleagues in the state house.

"I see my job as getting things done for these places, and it's a great privilege. Everybody's got a district, and they all love their own districts - but man, everybody loves mine too," he said.

Mr. Powell is a 12th-generation Vineyarder with ties on Nantucket as well - his grandmother, Bernice Mayhew, switched Islands to serve as principal of the Nantucket high school at one point, while his grandfather, Argie Humphreys, founded Humphreys Bakery. Today, his family still owns and operates the Bayberry Inn.

After graduating from the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School in 1978, Mr. Powell spent time as a missionary in Guatemala, a marketing director for Kinko's in Utah and a mutual funds representative for Fidelity Investments. He returned to the Vineyard 20 years later to teach at his alma mater.

He is now midway through a third term on the West Tisbury finance committee. He said he got involved in town affairs when he noticed that the Island was not receiving its fair shake of state funds. After volunteering with various state organizations, Mr. Powell claimed he helped to raise an extra $3.1 million for the Vineyard school system.

Five members of Mr. Powell's extended family have served as state representative. He points out that no Vineyarder has served in the state house since the 1978 redistricting that eliminated the Island seat and sparked a secession movement.

Mr. Turkington, whose job requires him to spend about 100 days a year in Boston, said he makes it to the Vineyard at least two or three times a month.

"I'm a 45-minute boat ride away. I can roll out of bed and be at the boat in three minutes, and quite often I do," he said. "It's the next best thing to being an Islander."

Mr. Turkington ticked off a laundry list of things that he has done for his district.

"We can drive up this coast and I'll point things out to you," he said. "I would say the major portion of my job is dealing with Vineyard issues. But it's fun to do it."

Active in the fight to save the southern woodlands last winter, over the years Mr. Turkington also secured special legislation for the Chappaquiddick ferry, state aid for the Oak Bluffs School, $100,000 for the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury, a special act for the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, a scenic easement for the Allen Farm in Chilmark, and a state bidding law exemption for the shops at the Cliffs in Aquinnah.

Asked how important the Vineyard is to this year's campaign, Mr. Turkington replied: "It's huge."

Mr. Powell agreed, and apparently plans to ride his chances in the upcoming election on his Vineyard support.

He claimed that his campaign lawn signs are up in Falmouth, and pointed to a "very organized and large" Republican organization on Nantucket that he said has helped him on the other island. But an unscientific survey during a drive through Falmouth this week counted close to 50 Turkington lawn signs and not one Powell sign. Donna Hamel, chairman of the Nantucket Republican town committee, said the group was resurrected less than two weeks ago and has not yet backed any candidates in the upcoming election.


On the Vineyard, however, Mr. Powell's lawn signs are sprouting like spring flowers.

"Things are looking very good here on Martha's Vineyard," Mr. Powell said. "I've had just an overwhelming response from people calling up and asking for signs and saying ‘yeah, I'm going to come out and vote for you.' And when they do that, you know that they're very jazzed. They're very enthusiastic about it and they're spreading the word to other people."

Charges flew last week over claims of stolen and missing signs for both candidates.

Mr. Turkington admitted that he is unsure about the level of Mr. Powell's support on the Island. "It's hard to say. The unknown quantity is the hometown-boy vote. The other side of that is that he's a Republican. I'm not," he said.

Although he is registered as a Republican, there has been some confusion about Mr. Powell's party status. He calls himself a maverick Republican, and said he did not register with the party until he moved back to the Vineyard, sometime in the last decade.

"After having nine years of business experience, and using that to temper my idealism that I had brought with me from college, I decided that the best thing is less government intervention in people's lives," he said.

Mr. Powell also worked for President Jimmy Carter's failed reelection campaign, and he was a staffer for the late Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas. He hosted a fundraiser for Cape and Islands state Sen. Robert O'Leary - a Democrat - last spring. This week he said he supports Mr. O'Leary.

The feeling is not necessarily mutual.

Asked who he supported for state representative during his candidate interview, Mr. O'Leary said: "Of course I'm supporting Eric."

And while Mr. O'Leary's Republican opponent has benefited from large party support, Mr. Powell has seen very little.

"I haven't got a single dime from the state party, all my money has been bipartisan," he said.

In fact, on Sept. 7, Mr. Powell received a $9,000 in-kind campaign contribution from the state Republican party.

During the interview, Mr. Powell said he had raised and spent roughly $42,000 on the campaign, including $23,000 of his own money. But his preelection campaign finance disclosure that covers the reporting period through last Friday shows he had raised $8,410, including $5,375 of his own money. The report shows he has spent $6,646.

Mr. Powell did not return calls to explain the discrepancy.

When Mr. Turkington last filed his financial disclosure on August 27, he had raised $18,905 in 2004 and spent $7,929.

On the issues, both candidates agreed that the Steamship Authority remains the front and center topic for the district.

"It's the one institution that binds this place together, and which at least two-thirds of us are totally dependent on," Mr. Turkington said. "The people who I talk to about the Steamship, they all have their own issues. But I'm forced to be a little more global about it, in that my concern is to make sure first of all that it stays locally controlled and that it doesn't go out on wild goose chases at others' behest that costs my people money."

Mr. Powell criticized Mr. Turkington for his role in allowing New Bedford and Barnstable to gain seats on the boat line board.

"It has added complexity into the whole operation of the Steamship Authority, which has led to insanity and the dysfunction that we're dealing with today," Mr. Powell said.

Mr. Turkington said the restructuring actually increased the Islands' interests -  raising their combined vote from 66.7 per cent to 70 -  even though it lessened the clout for his home town.

"When we had our issue over New Bedford, my people in Woods Hole thought I was Benedict Arnold because I wasn't supporting the mainland position," he said. "I guess I'm used to not having universal agreement on this issue among my district."

Mr. Powell also criticized Mr. Turkington for the new ferry embarkation fee, which is expected to raise $1.4 million a year for SSA port towns. He said increased ticket prices will affect economic development in the area by deterring travel.

Both candidates said they support wind power, but neither has endorsed the controversial Cape Wind proposal. Mr. Powell said he opposes any wind farm in Nantucket Sound, while Mr. Turkington described his position as a little more nuanced.

"The way we normally deal with publicly owned resources is not to just hand it over to the first person that knocks on the door and says they want it," he said. "We should not let the developer pick the site, but have public entities pick sites that are suitable, put them out to a bidding process, and get something good back for the public."

He noted with irony that the wind farm will not be subject to state approval.

"That's another thing that's a big hole in this. How can you put something like this three miles offshore in the dead center of my district and have no say over it by anybody in the state of Massachusetts, including the governor?" he said.

Currently vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Agriculture, Mr. Turkington also sits on the transportation and ways and means committees. But the recent appointment of new House Speaker Sal DiMasi could mean more important roles for Mr. Turkington.

"I've known Sal for as long as I've been on Beacon Hill, and I was his vice chairman when he was chair of the judiciary, so we shared space," he said. "But we'll find out what he's going to do on Jan. 15," he added.

"But first I have an election to get through."