ANNAPOLIS — On a rainy Friday morning in the House Office Building, Delegate Frank Turner sat working at his desk, as he has most mornings for the last 23 years. The walls of his office are lined with framed newspaper clippings and local awards, the memories of a life spent in service to Maryland’s 13th District.
The six-term Democrat has been a state delegate since 1995, after he was elected as the first African-American to represent Howard County in the General Assembly. He announced earlier this month he will not seek re-election.
“I feel as though sometimes that I’ve probably done as much as I can do in this particular job,” Turner, 70, said. “I feel a lot of satisfaction about what I’ve accomplished, but I also feel that for me there’s another mountain out there that I need to climb, and I feel as though for the most part that I’ve climbed this mountain.”
Outside of Annapolis, he spent 41 years as a professor of business law at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
That mountain of Maryland’s legislature has included a list of accomplishments and at times contention for Turner. The vice-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees legislation relating to education, elections and taxation, since 2013, Turner has shepherded several pieces of major legislation, including the legalization of casinos in 2007 and their expansion in 2012.
Turner said the accomplishments he’s most proud of are those that championed people often left out of the conversation, including the disabled and adoptees. In 2015, Turner sponsored a bill to provide more individualized education for blind or visually impaired children, and in 2005, he sponsored a bill to help adoptees contact and reunite with their families.
“Those are things you really feel great about because you know they really help people,” he said.
Now that he’s headed for retirement and some free time, Turner said he’s excited to spend more time with the people he loves, getting to cheer on his grandchildren at sports games and play more golf.
The upcoming Maryland gubernatorial race will take up some of his time as well.
“I thought what I was going to do was spend a lot more time with my family, play a little golf, do some traveling, but I’ve gotten a couple of calls from some of the gubernatorial candidates, and since I was deputy campaign manager for [former Democratic U.S. Sen.] Barbara Mikulski, and I’ve run six campaigns of my own, so maybe I can spend a little time helping one of the gubernatorial candidates.”
Turner said he plans to work with Democratic candidate Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker as a consultant.
“I think Rushern is a candidate that can win, I think he’ll listen, and I just believe that he has the ability to certainly win in the primary and then go onto the general,” Turner said.
Baker is one of seven Democrats vying for the party’s nomination to face off against the presumptive Republican nominee, incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan in November.
Baker campaign manager Andrew Mallinoff said their team has been talking with Turner for several months, and that the delegate has been helpful in connecting Baker to Howard County, in particular the faith-based community, but said they had not discussed an official role for Turner on the campaign.
“He so far has just been advising us on how to put our campaign together in Howard County, who to reach out to, good contacts for the campaign there,” Mallinoff said.
Endorsing a successor
As one of the longest serving legislators, Turner’s departure leaves an opening for a new shift in the political sphere.
Two candidates, Democratic Howard County councilwoman Jen Terrasa and Republican Chris Yates, a 68-year-old retired federal worker, have expressed plans to run for the seat, which represents the eastern part of the county including parts of Columbia and North Laurel.
Turner publicly endorsed Terrasa last week, and said his confidence in her abilities is part of what spurred him to feel confident in his retirement.
Terrasa, 48, who will have served on the County Council for 12 years when her term ends this year, said she is ready to build on her experience at the county level and advocate for issues such as universal pre-kindergarten and eliminating racial and economic disparities.
“Those 12 years of experience are invaluable, just working closely with communities in terms of what their needs are,” Terrasa, a Columbia resident, said. “I’ll have less of a learning curve than many.”
Terrasa said she hopes to build on the legacy of service and compassion left by Turner.
“He has been a tremendous advocate for the community,” Terrasa said. “And then just being relentless about things like the Harriet Tubman building.”
Republican State Central Committee Political Director Patrick O’Keefe said the GOP is ready to back Yates if no other contenders enter the primary, saying the North Laurel resident will “be a good candidate.”
“In the larger picture I don’t think [Turner’s retirement] completely changes things,” O’Keefe said.
When it comes to the state of politics in Maryland, Turner is quick to criticize Hogan, who he said hasn’t done enough to stem the continued violence and record-setting homicide rate in Baltimore City. He said the governor needs to focus on bringing jobs, better housing and an improved mass transit system to the city through increased funding.
“It should be a partnership between the state and the city, but it takes a real effort, and we’ve got to do more than just give lip service to it, we’ve got to find a way to make these things happen,” Turner said. “We’ve got to look at this as a state issue. It’s very important that Baltimore grows and survives and prospers so the rest of the state can prosper. We just don’t want the counties prospering and the state not, it’s got to be a concerted effort. And I just haven’t seen that effort from the current administration.”
Hogan has announced a crime-fighting legislation package that includes bills to combat sexual predators and human trafficking as well as strip convicted rapists of their parental rights.
Hogan’s office did not respond to calls for comment.
At the county level, Turner said he’s looking for leadership, namely the county executive, to provide more funding for the county’s schools, which he said he worries are “slipping.” Last year, the county opted not to fully fund the school system’s $622.6 million request, instead approving $572.9 million.
That issue is one of the key reasons Turner said he plans to eventually endorse Democratic County Councilman Calvin Ball in his bid for county executive this fall, though he said he’s not ready to make an official announcement.
Without proper funding, Turner said he worries Howard County’s schools, which are considered among the highest-achieving in the state will fall behind if more plans to deal with the growing student population aren’t put into place, in particular choosing a site for the county’s 13th high school, which it has announced will open in 2022.
“The overcrowding of our schools, that is a major, major concern,” Turner said. “When you know it’s going to take five years to build a high school, you better have a good plan. Not everyone’s going to like it, but that’s why you’re in these jobs, you’re in there to show leadership, you’re in there to show some guidance, and recognize that not everyone’s going to like your every decision.”
County Executive Allan Kittleman said it’s too soon to know whether he’ll be able to fully fund the school system’s request until the school board submits its budget. Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano unveiled his budget, which includes a $594.5 million request from the county, earlier this month. With a “great” relationship with Martirano, Kittleman said he’s confident the county will be able to provide adequate funding for the school system.
The county’s decades-long process to turn the former Harriet Tubman High School in Columbia into a cultural and educational center is another key issue Turner said he feels confident Ball would handle better than Kittleman. Turner has been a long time advocate for turning the formerly all-black high school into a cultural center.
It’s when talking about the over two decades it’s taken to get the project moving that Turner is the most forceful, frustrated by how long it has taken the county to move forward with the project; he wants to see the building finished in two years. Turner has introduced a bill to provide up to $500,000 in funding for the project.
“That’s been going on for 26 years; I want to see it open, some of the people who went to school there are no longer alive to see what it’s become,” Turner said. “I don’t have time now to waste, I want it done yesterday. I don’t care how [Kittleman] does it, just do it.”
Kittleman said he shares the same goals as Turner to see the building finished as quickly as possible, but that he can’t commit to a timeline until work begins on the building to turn it from a storage facility to a cultural center, which he said will begin “soon,” but did not give a more specific start date. In 2015, Kittleman worked to have the building transferred from the school system to the county so that it can be used as a cultural center; Kittleman called that feat one of the greatest accomplishments of his first term.
“I have the same goals as Delegate Turner and I appreciate all that he did to get us where we are are today, and I’d like to see the building open in two years, but I’m not going to make any promises until we start remediation,” Kittleman said.
While Kittleman and Turner have disagreed on issues during their time in office, Kittleman said he has “tremendous respect” for Turner and the work he’s accomplished. Kittleman served in the General Assembly with Turner from 2004 to 2014.
“I always found him to be someone who really puts his community first and really cares about people and the county,” Kittleman said. “We shared a mutual respect for each other; we agreed to disagree on some items, but we never lost respect for each other.”
Despite frustrations at times with the slow pace that government can sometimes move at, Turner said he’s proud to be a part of an evolving and diversifying environment in Annapolis.
“It’s an ever changing legislature. I remember the [House of Delegates] speaker [Casper Taylor, Jr.] went back in the year 2000 and showed us all the delegates that were in the house in the year 1900, and they were all white males. There were no people of color, no women, there were no Hispanics, no Asians, they all looked exactly the same,” Turner said.
Today, women hold 57 of the 188 seats in the General Assembly; the assembly also has one of the country’s largest legislative black caucuses, with 51 members.
“You just remember certain things, and then you say, ‘wow, things have changed in 100 years.’”