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Boardmember Spotlight: Mary Lee Turk

Posted by Will Rice (will) on Aug 05 2011 at 1:02 PM
ADA Today >>

By Jon Bernal

Mary Lee Turk was introduced to ADA in 2007 by her brother, former Indiana Congressman and past ADA President Jim Jontz, a dynamic progressive leader who died far too young. After his premature death, Turk agreed to serve on ADA’s Board and assist with the annual lecture that was established in his memory.   

Turk said that while Jontz was leading ADA, he made a startling discovery: “Jim realized voters were not voting in their best economic interest.”  Jontz’s response was to create a community organizing project to demonstrate how national political decisions influenced bread-and-butter issues at home.  His “brainchild,” Turk said, was Working Families Win (WFW), which educates voters about economic and social issues and the importance of “electing representatives that [will] vote in their economic interests.”

Founding WFW answered some of Jontz’s core concerns. “Jim cared about the everyday man and woman on the street,” Turk said; he was especially concerned about their “ability to earn a living wage.” And Jontz objected to “corporations taking advantage of people.” 

WFW continues to flourish as a permanent project of ADA and the ADA Eduation Fund, educating and organizing voters with a focus on good jobs, health care, Social Security, trade and the budgetary effects of military spending.  “If he were alive today,” Turk said, “Jim would be thrilled that WFW is thriving” under the leadership of current director Don Kusler. 

Not only did Jontz have a big influence on the progressive movement, he also struck a chord closer to home.  Turk’s three daughters “adored their Uncle Jim,” who “loved to educate others” and “would share stories with [the children] about the American Labor movement” and other progressive causes.  Jontz’s three nieces heeded their uncle’s call to give back to the community, growing up to become a Peace Corp volunteer, a college professor focusing on women’s issues, and a school teacher.

In addition to the preservation of her brother’s legacy, Turk’s special contribution to ADA is her leadership on LGBT issues—what she calls the “last bastion of prejudice.”

“Years from now,” Turk said, “we will look back and be embarrassed by the way we treated [members of the LGBT community] as second class citizens.”

An attorney in Chicago, she’s represented same sex couples who’ve faced discrimination over a variety of issues, including taxes and adoption.  While Turk said civil-union laws are a step in the right direction, “there are a lot of ripple effects” to denying same-sex couples full marriage equality, including the impairment of parental rights. Turk said important questions are raised (Can the nonbiological mother in a civil union pick up her child from school? Does she need special documents to make health care decisions for her child?) that only full marriage equality would answer.

Marriage equality would also untangle and equalize the tax treatment of same-sex couples, Turk notes. Currently, some states allow civil union partners the same filing advantages as married couples, but others do not.  In Illinois for example, “you will pay more in state taxes as a same sex couple” than as a married straight couple.  Turk believes “we need more legislation” at every level of government to right these wrongs.

Jon Bernal is a consultant with ADA.

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