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John TurnerJohn Turner

John Turner '04

For this Oregon native, being politically correct means improving lives.

When John Turner arrived at Willamette University as a freshman, he quickly declared a major in chemistry. He didn't envision pursuing a political career, nor did he imagine that, mere months after graduation, he would be chief of staff for Oregon state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland.

But the unimaginable came true for Turner. Today, he is Buckley's chief political advisor. "As someone who has always been a strong believer in public service, politics has been the perfect outlet for me," the 2004 graduate says.

There is no question that Turner has always been ambitious. At the start of his freshman year of college - despite his plans to one day be a doctor - he took the initiative to arrange an internship at the Oregon State Capitol, across the street from the Willamette campus. His work for Alan Bates, who was serving as the Democratic representative from Ashland at the time, turned out to be life changing. During his sophomore year, he changed his major to politics, a field that inspired and excited him.

As a junior, Turner took advantage of Willamette's internship program and returned to the Capitol, this time to assist Bates in his second term. Shortly after Turner arrived on the job, Bates pulled him aside and asked him to "become an expert" on the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS). At the time, the state was facing dramatic budget cuts, and the funding proposals put forth by DHS - the state agency charged with helping people become financially independent and healthy - had been thrust under a microscope.

Turner left Bates' office in May 2003 with a wealth of knowledge and more determined than ever to work toward a public policy that provides decent and affordable health care to everyone.

Turner spent the summer following his junior year as a paid legislative assistant to state Rep. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose. After graduating from Willamette in 2004, he returned to his home in Ashland, Ore., where he was hired as field and finance director for Bates' state Senate campaign. The campaign, Turner says, was full of energy. Bates, a Democrat, won 51.8 percent of the vote in a district where Republicans held a 2.5 percent registration advantage.

After the November election, Turner received a call from Buckley, who had taken Bates' place in the House of Representatives. "He asked me to be his chief of staff on the recommendation of Alan Bates," Turner says. "So I was really blessed with another great opportunity. Everything just fell into place."

For Turner, life after graduation is only beginning. At 23 years old, the world is at his fingertips, and given his success so far, he has set high but reachable goals for the future.

"I've always wanted to be involved, to make a difference and try to make our community better," Turner says modestly. When asked what personal experiences inspired his political ambitions, he isn't sure how to answer, nor does he seem convinced that "ambitious" is the right word to describe him. After a moment's thought, he quotes the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesotan who was known, until his death in 2002, as the only progressive in the U.S. Senate. "Politics is about making people's lives better," quotes Turner, noting that this belief is why he has chosen politics for his life's work.

"On both sides of the aisle, people are working to improve others' lives," Turner says. "Of course, both sides have different ideas on how to do that, but that's what's so exciting about being at the Capitol."

Turner says the Politics Department at Willamette gave him the intellectual tools he needed to put his ideas into action in a real, substantial way. "I received a great education on the background, development and history of policy-making," he says, "and I really gained an understanding of how to draft a piece of legislation that accomplishes what you want it to."

But why go to school at Willamette instead of somewhere else? Turner points to the location of the Capitol and the opportunities that its close proximity makes possible. "That link," he says, "enables so many learning experiences, both inside and outside of the classroom."

Turner was raised in Ashland, an area of the country known for its effervescent waters, rolling hills and velvety forestland, and he names environmental and land use policy as a top priority - not just for the state, but on a global level. He offers California's Great Central Valley as one example of unchecked development, recalling the last time he drove through the region and looked in shock at prime agricultural land overtaken by suburban development.

Global warming is also on Turner's mind. Like many scientists and environmental advocacy groups around the world, he is alarmed that the increasingly imminent threat of climate change is not reflected in American environmental policy. Moreover, he believes that "everyone has the right to clean air and clean water." Currently, he says, "not everyone enjoys that."

Turner's future plans include pursuing a master's degree in public policy. He hopes graduate study will give him the edge he needs to advance a progressive agenda that fosters a healthy nation, a clean environment, responsible land use and cost-effective, enriching public education. This vision for the country he conveys like a seasoned politician. Still, when asked if he will run for elected office someday, he laughs. "I think," he says, smiling, "it's too soon to tell."

Story by Adrienne Davich '05