Milton town manager Don Turner, a legislator who once vowed he’d never run for statewide office, is doing just that, he told the Milton Independent last week.
Turner has officially entered the race for Vermont’s next lieutenant governor. He planned to turn in his petition with at least 500 signatures on Wednesday.
Turner has served as the Vermont House minority leader for the last seven years and in the legislature for 13. In that time, he’s been at the forefront of the Vermont GOP’s struggles, leading a party that holds just 53 seats to the Democrat and Progressives’ 90 and Independent’s seven.
That imbalance drove Turner to seek higher office, he said.
“For me it’s about not quitting,” he said, noting his decision to not seek re-election to the House. “My plan will be to work with [candidates] all throughout this campaign to help Republicans get elected and bring balance to Montpelier.”
Since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Turner has seen fracturing in Vermont’s Grand Old Party. The base was divided, and though he was an early supporter by default, Turner rescinded his endorsement after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape leaked.
Then came S.55, the gun bill supported by Republican Gov. Phil Scott that raises the legal age to buy a firearm from 18 to 21, institutes mandatory background checks for private gun sales and bans selling high-capacity magazines and bump stocks.
Turner supported some S.55 amendments but voted no in the end, siding with gun rights enthusiasts. Scott’s signing of the bill has “disenfranchised” the Republican party, Turner said. He sees this election, if he’s victorious, as a means of reuniting the base.
The decision was last minute: Turner didn’t start circulating a petition until last Monday, May 21, he said.
The same day, he emailed town staff with his intentions and has since met with them individually. Some questioned who would be in charge when he’s in Montpelier. Others wondered if he’s really committed to Milton after all, since the announcement comes less than a year after Turner became manager.
“Most people seem really pleased and happy with what we’re doing [in town government],” Turner said. “Anything that’s going to upset that concerns people, and I get that. I’m trying to reassure them it’s not going to change from what I’ve been doing.”
Indeed, Turner has made the arrangement of serving in multiple roles work over the years. He only recently stepped down as fire and rescue chief, and as manager, he’s assembled a team of department directors to keep watch while he’s under the Golden Dome.
Turner maintains his priority is Milton.
“I’m going to be there if they need me,” he said, adding, “I am committed to Milton, but I have this opportunity that I feel compelled to take advantage of.”
As such, Turner will spend the short five months between now and November drumming up support for himself and Republicans statewide. He said he’ll devote nights and weekends to campaigning and won’t conduct politicking within municipal building walls.
Turner hopes there won’t be a primary so he can focus his time and campaign dollars on defeating incumbent Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive whose politics are usually opposite of his own.
Still, the two worked together this session on a tax-and-regulate marijuana proposal. Despite his party’s opposition to legalization, Turner recognized its passage was inevitable and reticently helped craft the taxation bill that Democratic leadership killed at the regular session’s end.
Turner said despite their differences, he won’t run a negative campaign against Zuckerman.
But it will be an expensive one. Turner expects he’ll need to raise $500,000 to be a real contender. Campaign finance records show Zuckerman spent just under $340,000 in the 2016 general election. (He beat Republican opponent Randy Brock, who spent half as much.)
“The power of incumbency in Vermont is huge … Lt. Gov. Zuckerman has that advantage,” Turner said. “He’s very savvy with campaigning, so what I need to do and what I want to do is not really focus on him but focus on me.”
Turner’s early platform includes a focus on education outcomes, fiscal responsibility and supporting volunteers for fire and rescue services, the latter perhaps with a bill to give property tax breaks to longtime members.
He hopes to accomplish these by wielding the lieutenant governor’s power over the Senate. The pro tem sets the body’s agenda, but the lite gov sits on a committee that nominates committee chairs. Turner wants to install more moderates to make legislation more balanced from the start, he said.
“With a different person presiding and different committee chairs, it’s very possible for me to make a change in what happens in Vermont,” he said.
Turner wants to refocus the Republicans on fiscal, not social, conservatism, he said. During the campaign and if elected, Turner wants to rally the troops around the message that they can disagree and still be Republicans.
“At the end of the day, we have this core set of beliefs: We shouldn’t spend more than we have. We shouldn’t just raise taxes because we can,” he said. “With this campaign, this is what I’m going to do.”
The approach isn’t so different from Turner’s style leading the minority party. That experience will help him get others elected, but his goal is to win, he said.
And despite the clear pathway to the seat, Turner says he’s not vying to become governor someday. There are too many projects in Milton he wants to see through, and if he loses this election, he’ll be content serving his hometown, he said.
“At the end of the day, I will have attempted to do this,” Turner said. “I can accept what the outcome is, knowing full well I have a great job to come back to and a community I care very deeply about.”
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect the accurate makeup of House seats.