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Vermont Attorney General Race Doesn’t Have a Lot of Rules

by William Boardman, published

Both lawyers running for Vermont Attorney General in the Democratic primary August 28, incumbent Bill Sorrell and challenger TJ Donovan, have accepted campaign donations from people who are or have been their adversaries in court.  Both say the contributions are too small to influence them.  The Vermont Bar Association has no policy that covers such apparent conflicts of interest.

Then there’s the $99,000 TV ad campaign for the incumbent, paid for by an out-of-state PAC, “the Committee for Justice and Fairness,” funded in great part by the Democratic Attorneys General Association.  Their ad started running August 10 and makes the usual pretense of not being a campaign ad. The challenger is hopping mad about it, demanding that it be withdrawn “in the interest of fairness.”   This ad buy is reportedly equal to almost as much money as the challenger has raised overall.

The primary race for Vermont Attorney General is the only contested race for a major office in the state and, in recent years, the Democratic nominee has gone on to be elected in the general election with as much as 83% of the vote.  In 2010, Bill Sorrell won his seventh two-year term with 61.9% of almost 231,000 votes (Vermont has about 450,000 registered voters).

This is the first time Sorrell, 65, has had serious opposition since he first ran for Attorney General in 1998.  He has held the office since 1997, when he was appointed by then Governor Howard Dean.  Sorrell was then Dean’s Secretary of Administration, having previously served twice as Chittenden County State’s Attorney (the county prosecutor) in Vermont’s largest county.

His challenger this year is the current Chittenden County prosecutor, T. J. Donovan, 38, who first won that position in 2006.  In 2010, running both as a Democrat and a Republican, Donovan won reelection with 16,764 votes – more than 14,000 ahead of his only competitor.

During a recent debate, Donovan cited prescription drug abuse as the most important issue in the campaign, a position he has taken consistently.   Like Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin, Donovan characterizes the problem as an “epidemic.”   He has also called for a uniform, statewide policy for use of tasers, in response to the state police taser fatality last June.  Donovan also wants to establish a special elder abuse unit in the attorney general’s office.

At the same debate, in response to the same question about the most important issue, Sorrell responded initially, “It depends.”  He later cited scams against the elderly, child pornography, sex abuse, and drug abuse, among other issues.

Both candidates oppose the death penalty, which Vermont does not have.  Both support physician assisted-assisted suicide, which Vermont does not have.  Both also support current gun laws and support the decriminalization of marijuana.  Neither candidate took a position on police violence, an issue raised by Burlington police using pepper spray and pellets on non-violent protestors during the governors’ conference on July 29.

In July, the two campaigns had a brief flare-up over an allegation that Donovan was using a “push poll,” which Vermont tradition frowns upon.  The issue died down when the poll turned out not to be a push poll, but had inartful questions that had drawn objection from a retired psychologist whose son works in Sorrell’s office.

The classic push poll is designed to spread negative information, often false, about the opposition.  One of the more effective push polls was used by George W. Bush in the South Carolina primary in 2000, when callers were asked how they’d feel about John McCain if they knew he’d fathered an illegitimate black child.

Donovan has had other bumps so far.  He wrongly inflated the number of opiate-addicted babies born in Rutland County and later corrected his mistake, which was the result of trusting a false report on WCAX TV in Burlington.   Donovan has also apologized for his campaign sending an absentee ballot to a voter who had not requested one, a practice contrary to statute.

Sorrell’s official action on out of state PACs has raised eyebrows, now that he’s benefitting directly from official state policy.  In late July, reacting to a federal court decision in June that overturned the state law limit on PAC spending, Sorrell announced in an advisory opinion that his office would not prosecute violations of Vermont’s $2,000 limit on independent PAC expenditures.

Two weeks later, Sorrell began benefitting from the $99,000 ad buy for the Dean TV commercial that’s not-a-campaign-ad spot that unequivocally supports Sorrell and was paid for by the Democratic Attorney Generals Association that avowedly supports incumbents.

Donovan called a news conference August 10 to complain about Sorrell’s ad violating what he thought had been their agreement about the nature of their campaign.   Donovan argued that: "By his own quote he's concerned about the corrosive nature of money in politics as a result of super PACs. He should demand it be taken down. This group is associated with the Democratic Attorneys General Association which he is a member of.”   Donovan added that, “$99,000 from a Washington, D.C. organization is more than Attorney General Sorrell has raised from Vermonters.”

Sorrell responded that he hadn’t seen the ad, but understood that his friend Dean had just said positive things about him, not negative things about Donovan.  Sorrell also suggested that Donovan might not be fully conversant with Vermont election spending laws.

Sorrell has also raised at least $5,825 from employees in the Attorney General’s office, but Donovan has not made this an issue.

When Donovan announced his candidacy in May, Sorrell was thought perhaps to be vulnerable, in part because of U.S. Supreme Court rulings in recent years that went against Vermont’s statutes controlling medical information and political campaign contributions.   At that time, the Vermont State Democratic Committee endorsed Donovan.  In late July, the same 28-member committee came up three votes short of endorsing Sorrell.

Sorrell’s Democratic support has eroded in part because of the state’s so far ineffective efforts to shut down Vermont Yankee or even hold it to prior commitments.  More serious, apparently, was the Sorrell campaign’s decision to send out mailers printed at a non-union shop. Labor endorsements have been going to Donovan.

Besides the Democratic Attorneys General Association, which has also given $6,000 directly to his campaign, Sorrell has the support of establishment Democrats such as former governors Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin, each of whom appointed Sorrell to prosecutorial offices.

Kunin has signed a fundraising letter for Sorrell, noting that she knew and was inspired by his mother when they were both in the legislature.  She also notes that she appointed Sorrell “to his second term as Chittenden County State’s Attorney.”

Dean has been campaigning with Sorrell and published an op ed piece supporting him.  Dean also narrates the $99,000 not-a-campaign-ad ad currently set to run 212 times before the primary.

Dean has said about Donovan, “T.J.’s really running for something else,” which is not unusual for Chittenden County prosecutors.

Sorrell and Donovan were both born in Burlington, which is the epicenter of Vermont Democratic politics.   The Chittenden County prosecutor’s office has long been a stepping-stone to higher office, most notably for U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, 72, who was elected to the office in 1966 and 1970.  In 1974, at 34, Leahy became the youngest Vermonter ever elected to the U.S. Senate, where’s he’s been ever since.  He is also the only Democrat elected to the Senate by Vermont, which has also elected independent, self-identified socialist Bernie Sanders.

Both Democratic candidates for Attorney General have signed a pledge to wage positive campaigns. The Republican candidate for Attorney General is Jack McMullen, also from Burlington, who is unopposed in the primary.   Although not a practicing lawyer, McMullen has a law degree from Harvard Law and an MBA from Harvard Business School.  His previous political experience comprises two races for the U.S. Senate, losing the Republican primary to Fred Tuttle in 1998 and losing the general election to Patrick Leahy in 2004.

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