By Kevin Joseph Ryan
Yes, it’s that time again. Tuesday, August the 28th, Vermonters will be headed back to the polls for the biennial election primary. Up and down the ticket, the statewide races are rather quiet, with few exceptions. One, as most know, is, the Democratic Party primary for Vermont Attorney General. Incumbent Bill Sorrell will be facing off against Chittenden County State’s Attorney Thomas “T.J.” Donovan. Following an early morning sign waving event, True North caught up with Bill Sorrell, who was happy to have the opportunity to promote his campaign.
When asked what his biggest challenge was at this point, Sorrell told True North, “The biggest challenge is turn out, getting people out to vote on Tuesday. I know this is the only statewide race with any consequence in the primary, and on the August 28th primary people are thinking about getting their kids back to school, or off to college, or the last few days of summer or the Champlain Valley Fair.” (Held in Essex the last week in August.) Sorrell continued, “My concern is that turn out will be really low and relatively few voters will decide who is going to be the Democratic nominee for Attorney General.”
Despite having been first elected to the Office of Attorney General of Vermont in 1998, this election cycle has been anything but typical for Bill Sorrell. Sorrell typically does not face strong opposition from a Republican candidate. The best showing from a Republican against Sorrell previously was Dennis Carver, a former police officer from Montpelier who ran because he was upset over speeding tickets and threatened to defend himself with a .40 caliber pistol. In 2004, Carver received 31%. This year, not only does Sorrell face a potentially strong GOP opponent in Attorney Jack McMullen, but he finds himself vying for his own party’s nomination against the ambitious Donovan.
Furthermore, in mid-July, an almost unthinkable event occurred in Vermont politics. The Democratic State Committee who had endorsed Donovan, the challenger, declined to endorse the incumbent Sorrell. Sorrell shrugged off the lack of endorsement. “They endorsed the other candidate, but then a minority of the state committee elected not to endorse my candidacy despite the fact that I’ve run successfully seven times as the Democratic nominee for Attorney General,” Sorrel told us. “I had the support the majority of the State Committee, just not quite enough from those in attendance at that day in July to get the 2/3drds I needed.” Sorrell was confident that should he win the nomination, he would receive the support of the Democratic Party.
There may, however, be some very real dissention in the Democratic ranks this year regarding Sorrell. Democratic Committee Member John Burgess has been quoted as saying that several Committee members took issue with Sorrell for having his campaign printing done at a non-union print shop and for failing to file Democrat Party paperwork correctly. The reality may be more personal as Sorrell, in fact, got his printing done at Villanti and Sons of Milton, a locally owned business within Sorrell’s own family. The paperwork, a 10 signature petition, merely delayed the Committee vote by one meeting. One would think after 15 years as Vermont Attorney General, Sorrell could gather 10 signatures in 15 minutes.
Another issue maybe close ties between the Donovan Campaign and Democratic State Chairman Jake Perkinson. Perkinson’s political consulting firm, Theseus Advisors, is currently handing financing for Donovan’s campaign. In addition, Perkinson may still be upset over Sorrell’s February dismissal of a complaint regarding a conservative community group, which the Democrat Chairman felt was violating Vermont campaign laws.
While Sorrell dismisses the past events as ancient history, it is clear that there continues to be issues between himself and at least some factions in the Democratic Party leadership. Sorrell spoke about an election effort cancelled by the Democratic Party this week when Donovan balked. “Just this week, the Democratic Party wanted to do a Get Out the Vote effort the day before the Primary, and on the Primary statewide, to enhance the participation in the primary and as a dry run, see how their Get Out the Vote effort works, in preparation for the general election in November,” Sorrell explained. “Our campaign said yes, absolutely fine. We’re fully supportive of that and my opponent’s campaign refused to go along with it, objected, and so the party is not going to do a GOTV campaign for the primary. That just seems so anti-democratic to me, both with a big D and a small D.”
While this behind the scenes drama plays out with some intrigue, Sorrell does feel there are some important differences between himself and Donovan on issues facing Vermont. He explained, “[One difference] apart from wanting more voters rather than less voters to vote in the primary, is access to criminal investigative files. I come down on the side of personal privacy, of average citizens, and keeping those files under current law confidential, but I’m proposing opening them up for investigations of law enforcement for on duty conduct that might be criminal.”
When asked if this applied to the recent scandal involving State Police payroll misconduct, Sorrell said, “That’s on duty conduct, so if there were no charges filed there, those (files) would totally be open under my proposal. Under my opponent’s proposal, all files for average citizens who are investigated or are part of a criminal investigation in which no charges are filed, those files would be open. So, suicides would be open as public records. I disagree with that.”
Sorrell, on supporting legalization of marijuana, noted he and Donovan had differences there as well. “My opponent’s proposal for small amounts…his proposal is decriminalization for two strikes, and then criminal conviction. I say we should look at the conduct. If were going to decriminalize and it makes sense to do that in my view, it shouldn’t be any different the third time or the tenth time, we should look at the conduct.”
In closing the interview, I asked Sorrell if that basically meant it should either be illegal or not. His response was, “That’s my point.” Bill Sorrell is no doubt hoping more Vermonters get his point next Tuesday on Primary Day than get T.J. Donovan’s.