West Tisbury Republican Plans to Topple Eight-Term Legislator


He's a Spanish teacher at the regional high school and a part-time farmer who wakes at 5:30 every morning to feed the sheep and collect eggs on a family farm off Lambert's Cove Road in West Tisbury.


It sounds like an idyllic set-up, but Jim Powell wants more - a seat in the Massachusetts legislature.

Mr. Powell officially announced his candidacy last week. To win in November, he'll have to topple a Goliath, eight-term incumbent Rep. Eric Turkington who's run uncontested for reelection all but three times and won by a sizable margin on every ballot.

So what makes Mr. Powell, a 43-year-old Republican in the middle of his third term on the West Tisbury finance committee, think he can unseat the Democrat from Falmouth?

"As a 12th generation native of the Vineyard whose roots go back to the Hinckleys in Barnstable and the Mayhews on the Island, I know what this struggle is like," said Mr. Powell, sitting in the living room of the Bayberry Inn, a family-owned bed and breakfast in West Tisbury.

The district Mr. Turkington currently represents is almost entirely an archipelago, comprised of just four precincts in the mainland town of Falmouth with the remainder made up of the Vineyard, Nantucket and the Elizabeth Islands.

Since a redistricting in 2002 that carved away parts of Barnstable, the electorate in this region now tips toward the islands whose combined voters account for 61 per cent of the total 28,917 registered.

Without a doubt, Mr. Powell is playing on his Islander status while also spinning the bulk of his rhetoric around the theme of economic hardship.

"We're squeezing our own people out," said Mr. Powell. "There's a real elitist movement to squeeze out the middle class."

The cost of food, fuel and housing, he added, is driving people off the Cape and Islands.

"Within ten years if you're not making $120,000 a year on the Vineyard, you'll realize it's not worth it to stay," Mr. Powell said emphatically. "The average price of a home on Nantucket is $970,000. Is it any wonder we're outsourcing our labor to Brazil?"

His solution to money troubles in the region lies in Boston and Washington. Mr. Powell believes that only 12 cents of every tax dollar coming off the Vineyard ends up back here in the form of state aid to towns for general government, education or transportation. The urban centers of the commonwealth are grabbing at unequal shares of the pie, at the expense of rural and suburban regions such as the Cape and Islands, in his view.

"The disparity is so great," said Mr. Powell.

The vice-chairman of the West Tisbury finance committee, he likes to dissect the numbers and he would love to change the way revenues from the Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod land banks are distributed. He wants money to go toward affordable housing in addition to land conservation.

"We need to continue not just to get land for conservation but we also need to save our people," he said. "How can a family of four successfully raise their kids here on the Island, own a home, be good, supportive citizens ... and then afford to send the kids on to college? If they can't afford it, where do they go - Maine, New Hampshire?"

With a campaign sharply defined by pocketbook issues, Mr. Powell is billing himself as the people's candidate.

"Look at what you have to deal with as a teacher, the whole cross-section of the Island," he said. Mr. Powell has taught Spanish at the high school here for seven years.

He is also trying to shed some of the stigma that comes with being a Republican in a district where registered Democrats are almost double the number of GOP voters: 31 per cent Democrat compared to 17 per cent Republican.

"I'm a moderate Republican. You can't legislate morality," he said, while noting the fact he worked for the late Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas and campaigned for President Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Powell also made frequent efforts to praise Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary, a Democrat who is facing a Republican challenger this fall. "I like a lot of Rob O'Leary's stands on the issues. Rob's a teacher, too," he said.

But beyond the partisan politics, there's a simple fact feeding Mr. Powell's optimism - the unenrolled voters. They make up of 51 per cent of the district's electorate, according to the latest figures from town clerks and the commonwealth's secretary of state.

"I'm not a conservative," said Mr. Powell, again trying to hammer home the distinction and appeal to the voters who haven't pledged a political party. "We need independent thinking and leadership."

Republican Gov. Mitt Romney has helped recruit more than 130 candidates from his party to run for seats in the state legislature this year. The state's Republican committee has already amassed about $500,000 for the collective campaigns.

Mr. Powell won't divulge the size of his war chest. His first campaign finance filing isn't due until just after Labor Day. Rep. Turkington, meanwhile, reported a campaign fund of $20,929 in his most recent filing with the state in January.

In Mr. Powell's view, the incumbent is vulnerable.

"He hasn't delivered except to a narrow segment that provides the majority of his campaign contributions," said the challenger. "(House speaker) Tom Finneran has kept everyone on a short leash. He sets the agenda."

While his experience as a teacher and finance committee member sounds provincial, Mr. Powell said he has proven himself at the state level, successfully lobbying for the restoration of state educational aid and most recently being appointed to serve on the state workforce investment board.

He also points to the fact that he traveled to Washington, D.C. to establish a teacher exchange between Massachusetts and Spain.

Mr. Powell seems well suited to the political arena. In other words, he likes to talk politics. Last winter, he was one of the outspoken finance committee members from West Tisbury arguing for a more equitable cost-sharing formula in the Up Island Regional School District.

He is concerned about rising taxes and the way that the economy is altering the demographics of the region.

"We're uprooting families," he said. "The people who leave the Island are silent. We don't hear from them anymore. I'm going to fight to keep that number from growing."