On Tuesday at noon it was quiet at the polls in Edgartown. The midmorning rush was over and the lunch rush (the town clerk wondered if there would be one) had yet to begin. Gray clouds scudded across a September sky. A small crowd of elderly tourists spilled out of a bus onto Church street. Eric T. Turkington ducked inside the Baylies Room at the Old Whaling Church. A lone voter arrived and headed for the empty booths, paper ballot in hand. He looked up and spotted the longtime Cape and Islands state representative.
“Representative Turkington?” the man said.
“I’m not on the ballot,” Mr. Turkington said.
The man stuck out his hand. “But you did your time and you’ve served us well. So thank you very much.”
It was a fitting Turkington moment.
Eric Turkington will step down from his seat on the state legislature this year. Exactly 20 years ago on Tuesday, he ran in his first primary with the district in its current configuration.
“I remember clearly coming over to the Vineyard for the first time [as a candidate], and I had six names of people that I knew here so I started with them,” he recalled.
One of them was the late Bob Morgan, an Island native who would later serve for many years as Mr. Turkington’s legislative liaison.
But that’s the middle of the story.
Eric Turkington grew up in Falmouth, the son of a newspaperman and a teacher. His father was associate editor at the Falmouth Enterprise, a weekly newspaper that is still family-owned today; his mother taught English at the Falmouth High School. He attended public schools in Falmouth, followed by college at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by law school at Boston College.
His first try for state representative was unsuccessful, in 1977, during his third year in law school when his hometown district was centered on the Upper Cape. He carried Falmouth two to one and lost Bourne 11-1. The same seat was available in 1984 and he ran again, this time missing the deadline for filing his registration papers, leaving himself with no choice but to run on stickers. Which he did. And lost.
At that point he had been a Falmouth selectman for three years and had become involved in a land protection effort called the 300 Committee. Named in honor of the town’s 300th anniversary, the goal of the committee was to protect 300 acres of open space. The committee still exists today, having protected 2,500 acres.
For Mr. Turkington it marked the beginning of a land conservation ethic that would inform his 20-year career in public service.
His third state election bid came in 1988. “I finally got it right. In the primary I carried Falmouth big, split the Vineyard and lost Nantucket,” he said.
And Mr. Turkington went to Boston.
As it turned out it was a terrible time to be a freshman state representative.
“[Gov. Michael] Dukakis had just lost his bid for president, the economy was tanking and state revenues had dried up. There was nothing that I could do for my district . . . they gave a party [in the booming 1980s] and I got there for the cleanup. It was awful,” he recalled. A six and a quarter per cent income tax was on deck on Beacon Hill to stave off the commonwealth’s financial crisis. Eric Turkington was one of three freshmen representatives who voted for the tax increase.
His committees over the years have included natural resources and agriculture (vice chairman), the committee on counties (chairman), transportation, rules, ways and means, judiciary and most recently the committee on travel and tourism, arts and cultural development, of which he is chairman.
He recalled the Speakers of the House he served under, including the notorious Thomas Finneran.
“He took care of those who voted with him from the beginning, and I had not been with him from the beginning . . . and you know, you’re either a chairman or you’re not,” he said.
And like many Islanders, he has not forgotten the cold November morning that Speaker Finneran gaveled through a supplemental transportation bond bill that contained a rider to break apart the Steamship Authority. And while the view differs depending on who’s telling the story, to this day Mr. Turkington insists that Mr. Finneran was friend, not foe to the Island in the infamous SSA hostile takeover attempt by powerful New Bedford politicians.
“On the Steamship Authority he was very much our friend . . . it was [New Bedford Sen. Mark] Montigny who was the driving force . . . being chairman of ways and means means you are one of four people deciding what happens with the state budget,” he recalled. “And Montigny said, ‘This bill [to take over the boat line] is coming out [of committee].’ And then Finneran let the bill come out. But he let it sit there for two weeks. And then he put us all in a room and said ‘Work it out.’ ”
The entire legislative session was disrupted. “The membership was furious. And in the end we came up with a compromise and I think it has worked out very well . . .” he recalled, adding quickly that he knows some may disagree. “If Grace [Grossman, the late Nantucket Steamship Authority governor] could hear me now she would be spinning in her grave,” he said quietly. But he added:
“You have to compromise, that’s what the place is there for, to hash out compromise over competing interests.”
Taking the bus from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown on Tuesday morning (in 20 years he has never brought a car to the Vineyard), he thought about the things he had done for the Island.
Beginning with the bus itself.
“The RTA [regional transit authority], really that was Doug Ewing’s [his second legislative liaison, who later died of cancer] project. It began with a bus and a trolley. I still have some of Doug’s tokens in my desk drawer.”
As the bus rolled, so did the memories.
The Oak Bluffs School: “I remember the first thing I did on this Island was attend a public hearing about whether the town should build a new school, and the question came up about whether the state would provide any money for it. And the state did come through.”
Mopeds: “That was a long fight at the legislature, but we did put in extra safety measures and the accident rate has dropped.”
The county jail: “The fact that you don’t have a 72-bed jail on this Island I am glad to see . . . you don’t want one of those here. The sheriff may have plans but the state doesn’t have plans and they’re the ones that pay for these things. If you have anybody that bad you can send them to Barnstable . . . I did the best I could to make sure that wouldn’t happen.”
The hospital: “The first year I was a rep, because of the things Dukakis did we had no money to reimburse hospitals. I can remember at one point picking up the check in Boston and delivering it to the hospital administration.”
The Beach Road steel guard rails: “It took about 30 seconds for the Vineyard to tell the state to take a hike with that idea.”
The southern woodlands: “That was when Finneran was not on our side. The developer had a lot of very high-level friends. That was a very difficult conflict, and the referendum to have the town pull out of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission turned out the way it should. But it was difficult.”
Why did he decide not to run again?
“I don’t know, I just thought about it and looked around and realized that I have done a lot of things. I have had a law practice and have been a selectman and maybe it is time for one more career move.”
In the November election Mr. Turkington will run for register of probate in Barnstable county.
How does it feel?
“Wistful,” he admitted. “Every time I come over I am reminded how much I like this place.”
He will come over again on Sunday afternoon for a special party in his honor at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury. His wife, Nancy, will accompany him.
And the 10-term state representative had some advice for whoever is elected in November to take his place:
“Listen to your people. There are plenty of outside interests that want your ear up there, but your job is not to represent them, it is to represent these people here. There is always someone who has a scheme that impacts us and you’ve got to be in on the ground floor of those conversations. And you’ve got to be tough, because no one else is going to stick up for this place.”
The party for Rep. Eric Turkington is from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury. Bring a story for the scrapbook and some finger food to share.