by Kevin Joseph Ryan
T.J. Donovan, The Chittenden County State’s Attorney (D) since 2006, has clearly shown aspirations to higher office this year. He is a candidate for Vermont Attorney General on the Democrat primary ballot to be voted on Tuesday, August 28th, and stands against sitting Attorney General Bill Sorrell (D). The question is, how badly does he want the job?
From the events of this year’s primary season, very badly would be the answer. The Attorney General’s race has been the most hotly contested primary of any race in Vermont this year and never has the contest for AG been so ugly, with charges and counter-charges levied from both sides. Historically, AG Bill Sorrell has not faced strong opposition from the Republican Party in the general election, let alone from within his own party. Before either candidate faces off against Republican Jack McMullen this time, one will have to defeat the other this Tuesday, and the battle has been fierce.
True North Reports sat down with Bill Sorrell last week to discuss his views on how the campaign has gone, in a story called “Primarily Speaking…,” which can be found here. True North did attempt to get T.J.’s side of the story, but Donovan declined to be interviewed and, despite a campaign aide requesting a phone number for a later time, a return phone call was not made by the Donovan campaign to TNR.
Donovan has stated publicly his reasons for running for the AG office. He told the Burlington Rotary Friday morning that, “I’m running for Attorney General because I believe after 15 years it’s time for a change. It’s time for new ideas, new engagement and new energy in the Attorney Generals office. The world has changed in 15 years; more so in the last four, when we’ve faced the greatest economic recession.”
It would appear Mr. Donovan’s basis for wanting to become Vermont’s head attorney breaks down to the idea that Bill Sorrell has more than a decade of experience in that office and that nationwide, the economy has not done well. How this point promotes his candidacy is unclear.
What is more clear is that Donovan has achieved a great deal of support for his endeavors among Vermont Democrats. He has been endorsed by over 100 Vermont attorneys, five state senators and five Democrats on Burlington’s City Council, among others. Unlike Sorrell, he received endorsement from the Democratic Party State Committee and six state labor unions.
Despite this support shown by Democrats, Donovan has felt the need to lash out strongly at opponent Sorrell. He has told groups throughout the state, “In the last 15 years, during Bill Sorrel’s time, his corrections budget has gone up 175%.” The Vermont State Corrections budget is actually overseen by the Agency of Health and Human Services.
However, Donovan did suggest additional spending by the AG’s office, for such new programs as a designated senior abuse unit and hiring outside legal assistance for “constitutional cases.” Further, Donovan noted, “When I go around this state talking to mayors, up in Saint Albans, in Rutland and in Barre, Newport, who’ve endorsed my candidacy, they want help from the Attorney General, they haven’t heard from the Attorney General in the last 15 years.” The latter charge seems rather unlikely.
On the former charge against AG Sorrell, Donovan no doubt refers to Sorrell’s losses at the level of the U.S. Supreme Court, involving Vermont’s campaign finance laws and drug disclosure limitations. Donovan was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to be penny wise and pound foolish and continue to pay out millions of taxpayer money when we lose. What I want to do is this: I want to invest early. I want to bring experts into the legislature so when were crafting this bill. We do the scrutiny. We do the analysis, so when that bill is signed into law, it stands up in a court of law.” Donovan did not note, however, that Vermont law only allows the AG office to involve itself in legislative issues when requested, and that legal advice to lawmakers primarily comes from the Vermont Legislative Council.
Donovan’s harshest critique of Sorrel, however, stems from Sorrel’s campaign practices. According to the County Prosecutor, Sorrell has received support from a political action committee known as The Committee of Fairness and Justice.
This group has funded a series of advertisements in Vermont endorsing Sorrell and it is widely known their financial support largely comes from the Democratic Attorney Generals Association. Regarding this, Donovan has said, “This is what they stand for … they’re for the economy and they’re against crime. That’s what you find on their website. They’re funded by every major corporation in this country, from Monsanto , big oil, big tobacco, right to center, big banks and they are dropping money into this state like we’ve not seen in a primary in the history. I’m not going to be able to compete with a superpac from Washington DC, I don’t want to compete with a superpac, where I frankly think Vermonters have a right to know where the money is coming from.”
The DAGA lists their address as Denver, CO and lists hundreds of supporters from all areas of industry, both private and public. Their contributors include the National Educators Association and the Chamber of Commerce. This information can be obtained on the website Campaignmoney.com.
For his part, Sorrell has also made accusations of underhanded dealings by the Donovan camp. Early on in the campaign, Sorrell stated that the Donovan campaign had engaged in “push polling,” a practice where questions are asked by a political or other group which suggest wrongdoing on the part of an opponent. When asked by various news agencies to review to poll to put the matter to rest, Donovan agreed to allow reporters to see the poll, but only if they did not reveal most of its contents. CBS Affiliate WCAX went so far as to decline the offer as the terms were most unusual.
Another charge against the Donovan camp came out of requests that were received by town clerks for requests for absentee ballots without the consent of the voter, including in the Town of Brattleboro. Donovan campaign manager Ryan Emerson apologized to some voters involved at that time.
Donovan appears to be very aggressively perusing a win in the AG race during Tuesday’s primary and seems to be pulling out the stops to defeat the incumbent Sorrell, a rare event in any political race in this state. Donovan summed it up this way for the Burlington Rotarians, “My campaign is about doing more….we’ll bring money into this state, make no mistake.” One has to wonder, does Vermont need an Attorney General out for money, or would it be better served if that person were out for justice?