Lawmaker Interview: Rep. Brian Turner of Buncombe County

Feb 16, 2017

With lawmakers back in Raleigh for their long session, we’re taking the time to speak to the members from out here in the west.  Today, Brian Turner, a Democrat of Buncombe County.  Turner represents District 116 in the House of Representatives.

“Casually, I would say I represent Skyland and Sandy Mush.  It’s all sort of western and southwestern Buncombe County.  So the only part of the city of Asheville I represent is really kind of the strip down Hendersonville road and the airport, Biltmore Park.  All of the rest of it’s county.”

Turner will be in his second term.  He narrowly defeated Tim Moffit in 2014 in one of the Democrats’ biggest pickups that year.  And last year, he surprisingly ran unopposed when the Republican candidate Kay Olsen dropped out of the race.  Buncombe County Republicans couldn’t find a replacement to run in time.  During his short time in Raleigh, Turner has developed a reputation as one of the Democrats able to work across the aisle.

“I mean I’m a pretty moderate Democrat, I guess, as far as Democrats go.  So I see and understand and find some common ground with a lot of my Republican colleagues.”

And that seems to have paid off for Turner.  The North Carolina Public Policy Research center ranked him the 91st most effective House member out of 120.  That might not sound great, but as a freshman lawmaker in the party out of power, it’s actually significant.  He ranked highest among the 10 freshman Democrats.  Turner attributes that to keeping his focus on helping the people of his district.

“You know, that’s my goal.  And sometimes the best way to do that, is to just be quietly working behind the scenes, and not with the inflammatory Facebook posts or the floor speeches.  I think some of those things are important because we want people to hear what’s going on, but I guess my preferred way of working is a little more collaborative and quiet behind the scenes.”

But Turner has had time to see the things he doesn’t like about the process.  He was very critical of the December special sessions called by Republican leaders, ostensibly to cover disaster relief.  They did that, but then they called an immediate additional session, something the Democrats were in the dark about.

“When you work in darkness, I feel like dark things are the product.”

In that session, the GOP passed bills to strip incoming Democratic Governor Roy Cooper of many of his powers.  That after he narrowly knocked off Governor Pat McCrory.

“I guess maybe I’d call it poor sportsmanship.  I mean, it’s not a game, but I just struggle with a metaphor.”

Not surprisingly, Turner did not support the bills.

“The voters of North Carolina had a job description for governor, and they had two potential candidates.  And they said, you know what?  Given what the job description is for governor, this is the guy we want to hire.  And now basically what we’ve done is hired this guy and then someone comes in and says, you know what?  That’s not the job description anymore.”

Another special session days later to repeal House Bill 2 fell apart.  But Turner is hopeful a repeal can happen now during the long session.

“If a full repeal of House Bill 2 were brought to the floor, there would be enough votes for repeal.  If everyone would just sort of hold their finger-wagging and their tongue-lashing and their grandstanding for 24 hours, I think we could get it done.”

Turner says he’s focusing on three key areas during the session.  The first is expanding broadband access in the mountains.  He says it’s hard to convey just what a problem it is to city lawmakers from say Raleigh or Charlotte.

“It’s really hard to understand that someone who lives 10 miles outside the city limits of Asheville can’t get online.  [In cities] you wake up in the morning and you check your e-mail and you watch a funny YouTube video and this and that and then you go to work.   Well this is like ‘I wake up in the morning and maybe I’ll drive down to the community center and check my e-mail, or I’ll take my child into town so they can upload their homework.’  I mean, it’s a different world.”

Second, Turner wants to focus on the opioid crisis.  He says there are a few areas to look at with that.

“Yes there’s a place for opioids and those types of painkillers.  But what about alternative therapies?  Acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, medical marijuana… what are some other things that are out there that we could be moving forward to give people alternatives?”

Turner also says he hopes that the issue of addiction can be addressed for what it is, as an illness in which people need help, with less focus on incarceration.  And the third issue Turner is focused on is access to affordable child care.

“If you can’t have a place where your child can be taken care of while you go to work, you can’t take that job.  And so these are all part of this tapestry of issues that I think are really holding the people of western North Carolina back.”

Turner says his approach to legislating is about finding common ground.  He talked about a friend of his who’s a Trump supporter, and says when he talks to him about why he supported Trump, he gets it.   

“And I think that’s part of what we need to get back to.  It’s not about Facebook likes.  It’s about, have you actually gone out to the communities that are being affected, and understand what’s going on?”

Turner says it’s about sitting down and listening to each other.

“With the attacks and the harsh criticism that comes, it’s easy to wall yourself off and say ‘I don’t want to be part of it.  I don’t want to listen to it.  I’m only going to watch Fox or I’m only going to watch MSNBC.  Or I’m only going to go the places where people like me and know me.’  You know, you’ve gotta stretch yourself.  You’ve got to get out there.  You’ve gotta move beyond your comfort zone.”

With contentious issues like House Bill 2 still before the legislature, that’s a sentiment Turner is hoping will prevail in Raleigh.