The procession advanced through the dark, a strange parade but one with purpose.
It wasn’t until it reached the welcoming streetlamps at St. Albans’ Taylor Park that it really came to life. It had been a long day after all, and the marchers still had to summon the energy to call out their message: “Don Turner Jr. for lieutenant governor!”
Such was the scene at the last stop on Turner’s 14-county tour Monday, a statewide canvass to plead for last-minute votes for the state’s No. 2 leadership spot. Turner, a Republican and Milton’s town manager, had amassed a crew that at times outsized that of his travel companion, Gov. Phil Scott.
The caravan began at 3 a.m. Monday and would end 14 hours later at at rally at Georgia Mountain Maples’ banquet hall in Milton.
“It’s been fun, it really has,” Turner supporter Joyce Shepard said from the St. Albans corner. “It’s nice to see all the people that are encouraging when they go by.”
Shepard, a member of Milton Rescue which Turner led for a decade-plus, said she’s known the candidate her entire life. That’s why she voted for him.
“I know what he’s done for Milton, and he can do the same thing for the state, and I think that will be good for all of us,” she said. “He’s a nice person and a trustworthy person.”
Shepard’s sentiment resonated with others on the campaign trail, like Jim Minor, who said he was “tickled pink” when he heard Turner was seeking higher office—a premise Turner once scoffed at. Minor, co-owner of Minor Funeral Home in Milton, has known Turner for more than 30 years. Like Shepard, he’d never helped a political campaign before but joined Turner’s because “Don’s a good guy.”
“What he says comes from the heart. That’s what I like about him,” Minor said. “When he says something, you’ve got his word.”
Minor said Turner is an advocate for affordability, the platform on which Turner has run his campaign since announcing in May. Even though Vermont’s lite gov role is statutorily relegated to tie-breaking and substitute-governing, Minor thinks Turner could still steer toward tamping down spending.
“Eventually I hope [the message] sinks in,” Minor said.
Indeed, affordability has been Turner’s rally cry since being elected to the Vermont House 13 years ago and the last seven he’s served as minority leader. Monday night, as his campaign bus motored noisily down Interstate 89, Turner said he’s heard this repeatedly on his statewide travels.
“My message just kept getting stronger and stronger as I traveled around and heard from more Vermonters: They can’t afford to live here,” he said.
In a VPR-Vermont PBS debate this season, Turner’s opponent charged that type of rhetoric isn’t exactly inspiring people to move here. Progressive Democrat David Zuckerman, the incumbent, said Vermont needs to offer progressive policies like paid family leave to ensure a better future.
The contrast is just one of many between the two candidates. Zuckerman supports a $15 hourly minimum wage; Turner thinks it would harm small business. Turner opposed marijuana legalization; Zuckerman has been a proponent for years. Zuckerman would consider a carbon tax; Turner would not.
The latter issue is what drew supporters Dwight and Ryan Bullis, dairy farmers from Grand Isle, to the rally on Georgia Mountain last night. A carbon tax would bankrupt already struggling farmers, they said.
“He’s open to ideas,” Ryan Bullis said of Turner. “The carbon tax would not help us at all. The price of fuel, which, we use a lot of fuel in tractors, would just increase that.”
Dwight Bullis, who grew up with Turner, simply said: “It’s time for change.”
Turner’s tenure has earned him the badge of “the voice of opposition,” one he embodied last session when he was one of only 14 lawmakers to vote to sustain Gov. Scott’s budget veto. Zuckerman said this only helped drive the partisan divide in Vermont politics, but Turner said he’d consistently pledged to support the veto if the budget would increase taxes.
Monday night in the packed banquet hall, former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas praised Scott and Turner for reining in spending in Montpelier. Douglas first appointed Turner to the legislature in 2005, a move he said he “never regretted.”
At the mic, Gov. Scott urged the Republicans gathered to not lose steam in the election’s last lap. He said he could use a partner like Turner in Montpelier, even though they don’t always agree.
“But he’s always there,” Scott said. “I can always count on him.”
Turner said Scott’s name recognition helped raise his profile in the race, one he expects could be close despite earlier polling putting him 17 points behind Zuckerman. Throughout, Turner has pledged he won’t be outworked, and his campaign contributions support that promise: As of Monday, he’d raised about $105,000 more than Zuckerman.
Win or lose, Turner said he’s humbled and overwhelmed by his supporters, particularly those who got up at 2 a.m. to ride a bus with him all day. He planned to spend Election Day doing one last canvass, standing on street corners in St. Albans, Barre and Berlin to earn support.
“If I get one or two or three or five more votes by standing there, it’s worth it,” he said, adding he predicts the race could come down to 1,000 votes.
“It really could come to that,” he said. “If it does, I just hope I’m on the winning side.”