BRATTLEBORO—With a boyish smile and a campaign sticker stuck on the lapel of his gray suit, T.J. Donovan paused, making quick eye contact with the nearly 30 Brattleboroites who didn’t know him from another lawyer in a suit from Burlington.
“I know I’m the underdog,” said Donovan, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, as he stood in a horseshoe of potential supporters at his second Brattleboro meet-and-greet on May 3.
Local attorney Thomas W. Costello hosted the gathering to help introduce the 38-year-old Chittenden County State’s Attorney to the southern Vermont crowd. Donovan visited the town after a whirlwind day of campaign stops that included Middlebury, Rutland, and White River Junction.
Costello said he supports Donovan primarily because of the lawyer’s courage.
The host asked party attendees to “fight for a great guy with courage against those with power and who have had it [the power] for a long time.”
The incumbent attorney general, Bill Sorrell, has held the office for 15 years. Appointed by then-Gov. Howard Dean in 1997, Sorrell is the longest-serving AG in the state’s history.
Pointing to his many in-court battles with police, Costello said that Donovan “didn’t have to [take on law enforcement], but he had the courage of his convictions to do it.”
Donovan joked that he is the most-sued state’s attorney in Vermont.
One of six siblings, Donovan describes himself as the son of a street lawyer who didn’t make much money but who stood up for the little guy.
According to his campaign site, the Burlington native obtained his undergraduate degree at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., and his law degree at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.
After law school, Donovan took a position as assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, Penn. In 2006, he was elected deputy state’s attorney.
According to Donovan, the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office handles more than 6,000 criminal and 300 family court cases.
His office lists prosecutions of high-profile murder cases like State v. Brian Rooney, State v. Gerald Montgomery, and State v. Chris Williams. Donovan said he is the only prosecutor to secure a murder conviction that resulted from a drunk-driving accident.
Donovan worked as an associate at Jarvis & Kaplan in Burlington. He lives in Burlington with his wife, Jessica McCloud, a mental health counsellor, and their son, Jack.
“Vermont faces real challenges that the attorney general can lead on,” Donovan said. “The office of attorney general should stand up for those without a voice.”
Donovan talked about “leveling the playing field of the Vermont justice system” by helping to standardize best practices across the state’s 14 counties.
Vermont’s law enforcement breaks down into 14 different criminal justice systems, replete with different sentences for the same crimes. Donovan points to marijuana possession, where one court might mete out a conviction and fine, while another court might choose not to file any charge.
“I’m not going to profile people,” said Donovan, who believes that Vermont should be inclusive. “We need more diversity in Vermont.”
Donovan was clear — everyone is welcome in Vermont, but if people commit crimes, he wouldn’t flinch, and he would toss them into jail.
But if people have mental health or substance abuse issues, Donovan said, he would just as unflinchingly find them treatment.
A proponent of community policing, Donovan said that whether the state wins on the big cases — the ones like closing Vermont Yankee, labeling of genetically modified food, or campaign finance reform — boils down to engagement.
“You can’t come late to the game,” he said. “The attorney general needs to be engaged if we expect to win the big ones.”
He said that good lawyers complete their winning work in offices, doing research and legwork, and building cooperation among everyone involved.
“No lawyer goes into court expecting to win. That’s not where the work’s done,” Donovan said.
Poverty in Vermont
Donovan promised to cooperate with Gov. Peter Shumlin’s “war on recidivism,” which the candidate defines as a war rooted in poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse.
“Poverty is real in this state,” he said. “Poverty discriminates.”
If a person with mental health issues or addiction hails from a well-heeled family, this person receives treatment. For poor people, the intervention system is usually jail.
“We lock up poor people, because we’re [actually] locking them up for mental health reasons,” he said.
To Donovan, that consequence illustrates that fundamental fairness is at stake.
Donovan views prescription-drug abuse as one of the biggest hammers to Vermonters’ public health and public safety. He said drug abuse sits at the core of most crimes in the state, such as burglary.
He supports the passage of a “Good Samaritan” law, which would protect people who call to report drug overdoses, and prescribing of drugs like methadone which help people beat their addictions.
According to Donovan, housing someone in jail costs the state $180 a day. By contrast, a day of addiction or mental-health treatment averages $95 a day.
In 2010, Donovan founded the Rapid Intervention Community Court, which was developed to treat criminal behavior at its often-common root of mental-health issues and substance abuse by partnering with social service organizations.
Rapid Intervention Community Court grew out of the Douglas Administration’s “Challenges for Change” initiative as a new, cost-effective solution for the old problem of budget constraints.
The Entergy v. Vermont case topped the list of questions posed to Donovan at the gathering.
Entergy, owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, took the state to federal court last year, claiming the state overstepped its regulatory bounds. The court ruled primarily in Entergy’s favor. The state appealed the case to the second circuit.
People asked Donovan what he would have done differently, and what he plans to do with the case if he’s elected.
If elected, Donovan said, he would focus on ensuring that Entergy fully pays into the plant’s decommissioning fund.
“It’s a huge liability that we the taxpayers shouldn’t be liable for,” he said.
Although the courts will decide Entergy v. Vermont, Donovan believes that the plant, either through a court ruling or through a business decision by Entergy, will eventually close. When it does, Vermont taxpayers should have the peace of mind that the site’s decommissioning fund can foot the clean-up bill.
Although he said that he doesn’t know how to persuade Entergy to pay into the fund, he pledged to collaborate with the Legislature and the state’s Congressional delegation to develop a solution.
He declined to “Monday morning quarterback” Sorrell’s handling of the Entergy trial, adding he wished Sorrell good luck with the ongoing court case.
Donovan also charged that the Attorney General’s office should work with the Legislature to ensure that bills can stand up in court.
“It’s not good policy to pass laws that will be overturned,” he said. “Let’s do the work up front.”
In a separate interview, Donovan said he chose to run for AG because Vermont needs change, new ideas, and engagement by the office with the legislature and public.
Donovan stressed that he feels Sorrell has served the state well, adding his campaign was not about bashing Sorrell.
He added that community policing and community prosecution occur when the community and law enforcement engage with each other and partner on developing policy. Together, both parties can build a relationship that fosters trust in government and “fair and equitable outcomes.”
“Vermont is a progressive state but is behind in law enforcement,” he said.
Sorrell ready for challenge
On Monday, Sorrell introduced the campaign staff which he hopes will lead him to an eighth term.
“I have assembled a terrific team with a blend of experience, energy and youth to help me bring my message to every corner of Vermont and win this election,” Sorrell said in a prepared statement.
The team has strong Brattleboro ties.
Mike Pieciak, a native of Brattleboro and an attorney at the Burlington office of Downs Rachlin Martin, will serve as Sorrell’s campaign manager, while former Gov. Howard Dean’s longtime political and policy advisor, Kate O’Connor, will serve as a senior advisor to the campaign.
Joining O’Connor as a senior advisor is Richard Watts, who managed campaigns for Dean and Peter Welch and is currently a communications and policy researcher at the University of Vermont.