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Analysis: West Point's Turner earned respect across party lines

JACKSON — Current and former Mississippi lawmakers, across party lines, are mourning the death of longtime Democratic Sen. Bennie Turner of West Point, who died Nov. 27. He was 64.

Turner, an attorney, was first elected to the Senate in 1992 and took office in January 1993. The most recent configuration of his district included all of Clay County and parts of Lowndes, Noxubee and Oktibbeha counties.

He was known for his sharp, analytical mind and for his even-keel demeanor, even when committee rooms were packed and emotions were running high.

“Bennie Turner had the ability to calm troubled waters better than anyone I served with in the Legislature,” Republican Alan Nunnelee told The Associated Press.

Nunnelee, of Tupelo, was elected to the state Senate in 1995 and served there until late 2010, when he won a seat in the U.S. House. He said Turner had a deep, soothing voice and was so highly regarded that even people with sharply divergent political opinions would stop and listen to what Turner was saying.

“Where ever I stood politically, I always respected his position,” Nunnelee said.

Turner led the Senate Judiciary Committee for eight years. He was first appointed to the chairmanship in early 1996 by Ronnie Musgrove, who was lieutenant governor at the time.

During the election year of 1999, when Turner was unopposed in seeking his third Senate term, he was hospitalized for about a month with meningitis, an illness that causes inflammation of tissues covering the brain and spinal cord. He lost a good bit of his hearing, but his mind remained sharp and fellow senators welcomed him with a standing ovation in January 2000.

“I don’t have the words to tell you how happy I am to be able to stand before you right now,” Turner said.

He was re-appointed as Judiciary Committee chairman that month by Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, who started her career as a Democrat. As chairman, Turner was one of the lead negotiators during special session that Gov. Musgrove called in the fall of 2002 to deal with limiting awards in civil lawsuits. The session dragged on for three months amid political pressure from business people and doctors (and most Republicans) who wanted the limits and attorneys and consumer advocates (and many Democrats) who opposed them.

After the special session ended, Tuck switched to the Republican Party. She won a second term as lieutenant governor in 2003 — and when the term started in early 2004, she split the Judiciary Committee into two parts, Judiciary A and Judiciary B. She didn’t give Turner the chairmanship of either committee.

Musgrove said in a statement this past week that he will miss Turner.

“Bennie Turner took every aspect of his duty as state senator seriously. He was respected and admired by everyone because of his professionalism — even those who disagreed with him,” Musgrove said. “I consider it a privilege to have served with him. Many people in Mississippi are better off today because of his work and effort.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Tupelo served in the Mississippi Senate from early 1988 until late 1994. He said in a statement that he and Turner were close friends for three decades.

“In addition to our years together in the state Senate, I served with him on the board of directors of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services in the 1980s when he served as chairman,” Wicker said. “Bennie Turner was a true public servant who exhibited integrity and bipartisanship. He led a successful law practice and was a smart small business owner. His passing is a great loss.”

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