Joe Turner, longtime member of statehouse press corps, dies at 63

Joe Turner, a 31-year News Tribune reporter with a knack for making state government understandable to readers, died Friday.

A 1968 graduate of Bellarmine Preparatory School, Turner had been hospitalized following a stroke Wednesday. He was 63.

“He was a combat veteran in Vietnam,” said Rob Tucker, a longtime News Tribune reporter and editor who retired in 2008. “On patrols, he said he liked to walk the point, and he said he liked to do that because he thought he was the most experienced and the best at making sure the patrol would survive. And he brought that kind of courage to the newsroom. He never backed down to anyone.”

And not just in the newsroom, where he defended his stories and his independence to editors until he retired in 2009. He brought the same tenacity to the wings and offices of the Capitol, where he came to interviews armed with a deep understanding of what he was covering and ready to call out politicians who bent the truth.

While he could come off as gruff, he also had a charm that he deployed to build up one of the best Rolodexes in the Capitol press corps and to regularly score scoops. He knew everybody, said Hunter George, who worked beside Turner as a statehouse reporter for the Associated Press and then became his editor at The News Tribune.

“He would flirt with anything that moved — and it wasn’t a sexual flirt, I don’t mean it in that way,” George said. “He was just so friendly. He had this charm offensive he could put on you.”

Sitting in the wings of the House or Senate, George said, reporters and staffers would watch Turner knowing he was about to put a hand or even both hands on his source’s forearm.

“We‘d start betting on whether they were going to get the one-hand or two-hand treatment from him,” George said.

At home in Tacoma with his wife, Carla Harris, Turner invited old friends over for pig roasts and tended his vegetable gardens, unruly rows of beans, tomatoes and fruit trees that didn’t always thrill his neighbors.

“Joe just always liked to thumb his nose at convention, I guess,” said another former News Tribune reporter, Sandi Doughton. “So in the middle of all these manicured lawns, he basically had a farm.”

Turner was renowned in Olympia for dogged reporting, especially for digging into the state budget and transportation spending.

In a going-away note posted on The News Tribune website before he left, Turner lamented the erosion of the statehouse press corps and said he regretted leaving at a time when newspapers were downsizing.

“Government is sneaky. It just is. It doesn’t matter who is governor, which party controls the Legislature or who is at the helm of a specific agency. From time to time, government leaders are just plain sneaky. They have their reasons. Most of the time they are benign. Often, they just want to advance their particular agenda or program under the radar so they can build momentum before the opposition is alerted and can mobilize to stop them,” Turner wrote.

“...These are not evil people. They’re just public servants who sometimes can be self-serving. That’s why the press is supposed to be a watchdog. We’re supposed to find out what they’re doing and alert everyone.”

But, he said, the aggravations of the job had begun to outweigh the rewards.

“One of my former bosses said to me, ‘Joe, you’re the most cheerful malcontent I’ve ever met,’” Turner wrote. “I loved that description. But that was 20 years ago, and I have since lost much of my cheer. I’m going to look for it.”