Say this for Steven Turner: He feels comfortable in front of a camera.
At just 26 years old, Turner speaks with the confidence and ease of a battle-tested veteran politician. But his comfort level doesn’t come so much from campaign trail experience, rather from giving interviews with national media outlets like CNN, MSNBC and even MTV.
Last month, Turner launched his candidacy for the Tennessee House of Representatives 58th District. He’ll be looking to unseat entrenched incumbent Democratic Rep. Mary Pruitt.
“What made me get into politics was when I moved back home [from going to school in Atlanta] in 2006,” said Turner, who works at his family’s electronics business. “Harold Ford Jr. was running for Senate. When I was talking to my peers, asking them how they felt about the election, I found they didn’t know much. They didn’t seem to be concerned.”
Turner became motivated to make a difference. He created a voter registration organization called Voting Is Priceless. In 2006, VIP registered 1,000 voters. Turner then lent his organizational efforts to Howard Gentry's mayoral campaign in 2007 and then volunteered on the Barack Obama presidential campaign in 2008.
His work with the Obama campaign helped springboard him into the national media spotlight. MTV.com did a story about his voter registration program that was followed up with election-day stories on CNN and MSNBC.
As an organization, VIP established a presence on Nashville college campuses. It also used music to draw young people to gatherings and then register them to vote before the concert.
Learning about issues facing the state and Nashville while motivating the 18-to-35 demographic to get involved spurred Turner to get more involved, too. But serving as an activist wasn't enough — he wanted to run for office.
“I looked at it and thought, ‘I can do something to help my community,’ and this was the natural next step,” Turner said.
Old versus new
Although he admits his lack of name recognition will be working against him, Turner will have his share of momentum heading into next year’s election. He was voted one of the NAACP’s top 45 under 45 last year.
Just last month, Turner was named the Davidson County Young Democrats’ Rising Star. He beat out the likes of prominent Nashvillians including Metro Council members Lonnell Matthews Jr. and Erica Gilmore, Mayor Karl Dean’s Office of Neighborhoods and Community Outreach Director Brady Banks and Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis attorney Kyong Choi.
“He was tireless in his effort to register new voters, which was very impressive,” said progressive activist Mary Mancini, co-host of the Liberadio podcast and radio show. “He understood the importance of getting people registered and then actually turning them out to vote.
“So that was really what piqued my interest. He listens well. He is sincere. He’s willing to work hard, I saw that during Voting Is Priceless.”
While Turner downplays inferences that next year’s District 58 election is about old versus new, it’s difficult not to characterize it that way.
Pruitt, who did not respond to an interview request for this story, was elected to the state House in 1985. She demonstrated her staying power in 2006 when, despite several media scandals, she beat her Democratic primary opponent by nearly 20 points.
Turner declined to comment on the issues faced by Pruitt — which included a charge that she used campaign contributions to pay rent on a house she owned — but said change was needed in the district for the sake of “new ideas.”
Turner, who was only two years old when Pruitt was first elected, said he was "far too young to know some of her heyday accomplishments."
"I think she’s been a little absent lately, especially as it pertains to representing some of the newer aspects of the district like the new small businesses," he said, adding that he has every indication that she's going to run for re-election. “I plan to run a good campaign."
Citing his work ethic and proven ability to organize, those who know Turner believe he will be a formidable candidate for the seat.
“He is a fighter. He’s a go-getter. I think he’s going to really offer a challenge Mary Pruitt,” At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry said.
Representing the future
While Turner said he doesn’t agree with casting next year’s election as a potential changing of the guard, he said representing youth will be a priority. The potential candidate said it’s his belief that District 58 has become younger and more diverse and is an area of Nashville looking for fresh ideas.
Working for Universal Electronics, an international seller of voice and data services founded by his father, Turner has developed a passion for technology.
He said one of his platforms would be expanding wireless Internet infrastructure so that poor neighborhoods of Nashville could have access. Turner pointed out how essential Web access has become for job and school applications. Poor areas, he added, are at a disadvantage because connectivity is difficult to find.
“The availability of high-speed Internet, it’s something that’s become a necessity,” Turner said. “It’s not a luxury anymore and we need the infrastructure, because you’ve got a group of people that can’t apply for jobs or can’t find information about colleges.”
He’s also an advocate for improving and growing Nashville’s mass transit system, an initiative Mayor Karl Dean calls the most important issue to the city’s young people.
Mancini has spent much of this legislative session advocating for issues — such as voter rights — she believes resonate with Tennessee’s youth. Mancini agreed that while there are many issues that come through the state House that Tennessee’s youth care about, there is a need for more involvement from the under-35 demographic.
“There definitely needs to be more young people involved in state politics,” Mancini said. “I don’t think many younger people understand that ‘all politics is local’ axiom and he does.
“He has worked with registering young people to vote. That’s where he learned most people are focused on the big sexy races and not the state level or the local level.”
Councilman Matthews, who at 30 years old is also a newcomer to elected office, said Turner is focused on the right issues.
“He’s a young candidate who brings new ideas to the table in regard to mass transit, in regard to technology,” Matthews said. “I think he’ll be a very good candidate.”