In an age of polarized partisan politics and lockstep party voting, the long-serving Turner’s was the one vote that was never taken for granted by anybody. As the Knoxville News-Sentinel’s Tom Humphrey noted on his passing, Turner was not averse to being on the short end of a 98-1 vote in the state House of Representatives if an issue struck him as a matter of conscience or conscientiousness.
And yet there was no showboat in him. The diminutive ever-smiling Turner was about as mild-mannered and diffident in his self-presentation as it was possible to be. He never shamed a colleague, friend or foe, merely stated his case for the record and made his vote. He was the quiet man whose voice and vote carried far.
I cannot recall the issue now, but I remember being struck by Turner’s taking a holdout position on some vote during the early ‘90s, one that caused other members to look again at the matter and vote to reconsider it. I was so impressed by the transformation caused by this mighty mite that I wrote a column about Turner in which I jokingly compared him to Superman.
A reelection campaign or two later, I went to one of his events and saw that column mounted on a board with a cartoon image of Turner, in Superman costume and cape, superimposed on it. He had a famous sense of humor, too. To employ a standard that I have been able to use on only a handful of political figures, it was impossible to imagine anyone saying, “That damned Larry Turner!”
Even so, for an incumbent who lasted in the legislature as long as he did — almost a quarter century, having been elected and re-elected for a total of 12 terms — Turner seemed always to be drawing an opponent in his district, the southern-most in Memphis and Shelby County. He always won, easily.
He and his wife, longtime local NAACP head Johnnie Turner, had for decades been figures of crucial importance and large influence in local affairs.
The last time I took public note of his studied singularity on a major vote was in August 2007 during the course of a strenuous late-session showdown vote in the House over a tobacco tax pushed by Governor Phil Bredesen, with the proceeds intended for education. It was definitely a party-line issue. Republicans were against it as a bloc, and Democrats were expected to be for it — though Larry Turner and Mike Kernell, both Democrats, dissented, each for essentially the same reason.
Neither was opposed to the tax per se; each merely felt that the revenues raised from a tobacco tax should be allocated to health care and held out unsuccessfully for a bill that took that form.
Turner was not a spoiler, though. As late as 2007, the Democrats still commanded enough of a majority in the House that fellow Democrat Bredesen was able to get his bill through. Former Speaker Jimmy Naifeh noted on his passing, “You could always count on Larry.” Indeed, in the last full term that Democrats controlled the House (2007-8), Turner had risen to the rank of Deputy Speaker.
In more ways than one, Larry Turner made a difference.