BRATTLEBORO—Less than a week before the Aug. 28 primary, the Democratic race for the attorney general’s office boils down to a contest between an incumbent with 15 years experience and a newcomer with big ideas.
Incumbent Attorney General Bill Sorrell describes the decision for voters as whether to stay with a long track record of accomplishments or switch to an “undefined future.”
But Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, the challenger, says that the decision for voters is choosing between “the status quo versus the ambition to do more for Vermont.”
The primary race for the Democratic AG slot is the first time Sorrell has faced serious competition in his 15 years in office. The candidate who wins the primary will stand as the Democratic candidate for the seat in the November general election.
Primaries in Vermont yield traditionally low voter turnouts. Sorrell has expressed concern that his supporters will assume that he doesn’t need the votes and will not vote Aug. 28.
Donovan, for his part, has expressed concern about his name recognition outside Chittenden County.
According to Sorrell, turnout estimates for this year’s primary fall at 40,000. If so, he said, it would be the second highest in the last decade.
“Turnout is key,” he said.
Sorrell, who stopped in Brattleboro on Aug. 20 for the last time before the primary, started his morning with a “honk and wave,” where he and supporters held signs and waved to passing motorists.
The Sorrell campaign also launched a radio ad featuring former Gov. Howard Dean, a backer.
He said it’s too early to have butterflies in his stomach, but he admitted that the campaign trail has reinforced and energized his love for the position.
Sorrell points to a postcard depicting downtown Rutland. The writer, a Bill Vargas, wrote that he would vote for the incumbent and would encourage his friends to do the same. Sorrell’s record, wrote Vargas, is the reason for his support.
His 15-year record has served as his primary talking point.
Alluding to Donovan, Sorrell said that his experience outweighed plans that had not been “fleshed out.”
“[With me,] voters have got a known quantity, and a high quality, in an AG who has made the tough calls,” he said.
Sorrell added that when an AG goes into battle as often as he has, he will also lose a few.
“But if I did not lose any, it would mean I was ducking some of the tough ones,” he said.
Sorrell sees two policy differences between him and Donovan.
According to Sorrell, Donovan has a “two-strikes proposal” for the decriminalization of marijuana. The first two times someone is charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana, Donovan’s plan calls for a fine only. The third time, however, the possession would carry a charge of criminal conduct.
Sorrell feels the court should be consistent and consider the conduct, not the number of offenses. If the conduct of possession is decriminalized, then it shouldn’t matter how many times a person is caught with a small amount of marijuana.
The second difference Sorrell sees is on the issue of public access to criminal investigation files.
Donovan wants Vermont to meet the federal standard for investigations, where files are presumed open. Vermont’s law presumes files are closed.
Sorrell feels that until someone is charged with a crime, the records should remain closed. He said that current Vermont law helps preserve a person’s status of “innocent until proven guilty.”
“You’re entitled to your privacy,” he said.
Sorrell cited the 1991 murder of Patricia Scoville, where the police took DNA samples from 81 men during the investigation.
“In this viral world, how would you like to be up on the Web as someone who was once suspected of being a rapist/murderer?” said Sorrell.
However, Sorrell said that if re-elected, he will approach the Legislature in January to propose that filings for investigations into the on-duty conduct of law enforcement personnel become public record.
The average citizen should feel assured Vermont doesn’t have two court systems, one for them and an easier one for law enforcement, he said.
Sorrell has taken heat as being soft on law enforcement personnel charged with misconduct.
Another difference between the two candidates, said Sorrell, is that his broad experience equips him to try cases dealing with a wide range of topics, from consumer rights, to civil rights, to environmental issues, to defending Vermont’s laws when they are attacked.
Sorrell said no AG has fought harder to reduce the amount of big money in Vermont campaigns. He defended Vermont’s campaign-finance law, successfully he added, at the state and appeals level.
Vermont, however, lost its case for its campaign finance law on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sorrell’s office recently upheld the super PACs’ ability to make independent expenditures in Vermont even if they exceed the state’s $2,000 limit.
Given the Supreme Court’s precedent set with its ruling in the Citizens United case, Sorrell said he predicted that enforcing Vermont’s limit would prove an uphill slog in court.
Despite benefiting in this election from a reported $99,000 in advertising funded by a super PAC called the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA), which is making an independent expenditure, Sorrell said that his office will watch Super PACs during this election cycle. Any groups stepping out of the independent expenditure lines will face enforcement, he said.
On its website, the DAGA describes itself as “a political organization formed to to support the election of Democrats to the office of Attorney General."
Again, if returned to office in January, Sorrell said, he will speak with the Legislature about making changes to the state’s campaign finance law to treat super PACs looking to make independent expenditures differently.
“These are not [only] ideal promises and plans,” said Sorrell. “I’m proud of my record.”
Looking to provide vision
“We feel good,” said Donovan of his campaign during a phone interview on Monday.
In his customary high-powered communication style, Donovan rattled back his answers.
He said his campaign had built momentum and is steaming ahead, organized and tireless.
Donovan said voters should understand that he is “the candidate with ideas.”
“I am the candidate with vision, and I am the candidate who will do more for Vermont,” he said.
He reinforced his pledge to reform Vermont’s criminal justice system, decriminalize marijuana, take on the issues of prescription drug abuse and elder abuse, and “win the big cases.”
“I will be the AG who is engaged, active, and works for Vermonters,” he said.
In response to Sorrell’s questioning Donovan’s narrower experience as a criminal justice prosecutor, the candidate said it didn’t worry him. Instead, he said, he would surround himself with experts possessing the skills he lacks.
Donovan said the main difference between him and Sorrell is ideas. Donovan asserted that he brings major policy plans to the table.
He pointed to Sorrell’s suggestion to tax soda as a measure that would create a tax on the working class. Donovan also stressed his support for migrant justice and labeling of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
“How you campaign is how you’re going to govern,” Donovan said, adding that he has energy and a willingness to listen to Vermonters.
Donovan has received criticism for some of his big ideas as taking on actions not under the AG’s purview.
Not missing a beat, Donovan answered with,“Yes, they are.”
As far as he’s concerned, the attorney general sets expectations and vision, and he surrounds himself with the experts who can implement that vision.
The AG has a leadership role in issues affecting the state, he said. In other states (like California) that have a GMO-labeling proposition on an upcoming ballot, the AG has taken the lead.
Donovan responded to the pro-Sorrell super PAC funding, saying he felt “disappointed.”
“Are the DAGA’s actions legal?” he asked rhetorically. Sure they are, he said, but super PACs aren’t in line with Vermont’s values.
“I can’t compete with big money,” he said.
According to Donovan, using information found on the website OpenSecrets.org, the DAGA’s top contributors include Citigroup, Wal-Mart, Pfizer, and Monsanto. Donovan defines these donors as “big oil,” “big pharma,” “big banks,” and “big tobacco.”
“I campaign the Vermont way,” he said, describing his run as a grassroots campaign.
Not to sound like sour grapes, Donovan said he wouldn’t take super PAC money, even if elected.
“This is what is wrong with American politics,” he said. “We’re better than that in this state.”