After a late-night cliffhanger of a primary, Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell on Tuesday launched the next phase of his bid to keep his job: a general election fight against Republican businessman Jack McMullen.
"I do have a tough race and it's going to be so great to not have it be a primary, because there are very real differences between myself and my Republican opponent," Sorrell told a rowdy crowd of Democrats at a party unity rally staged at Burlington's Main Street Landing.
"For one, I'm admitted to the bar and can practice law in the courts of this state and he can't. He's wealthy; I'm not. He thinks we should drop the Vermont Yankee — the Entergy — appeal. There's no way we're going to do that," Sorrell said. "He thinks our food labeling laws are bad for business. I think they're good for consumers, and I'm going to uphold and enforce those laws."
Sorrell's pivot to the general election came just an hour and a half after Democratic challenger T.J. Donovan conceded to Sorrell by phone, admitting that he'd narrowly lost a rare, intra-party fight against the 15-year incumbent.
Calling in to WDEV's The Mark Johnson Show shortly after 9 a.m., Donovan hinted that if Sorrell held his lead, he would likely concede before the unity rally, which was scheduled for noon.
"I think we owe it to the voters of Vermont to make sure we get it right," he told Johnson. "But it does look like we'll fall a little short."
Sure enough, by 10:45 Donovan had conceded to Sorrell by phone. At 11:30, he convened a press conference in Burlington's Battery Park, surrounded by his wife, sisters and mother. The Chittenden County state's attorney said he was "so proud" of the campaign he ran, which he said focused on "out-of-the-mainstream" issues, such as substance abuse, mental illness and poverty.
"We brought those issues to the forefront across the state. Our message resonated with thousands of Vermonters, and I'm so grateful and humbled by their support," Donovan told a scrum of reporters and supporters. "My campaign has ended, but those issues remain. I will remain committed to working on those issues and doing more for Vermont."
"I not only offered my congratulations, I offered my commitment to work with Attorney General Sorrell on his reelection bid this November," he said. "This was a hard-fought campaign. I'm proud of the fact that we engaged thousands of Vermonters on the issues and about an incredibly important office. I have absolutely no regrets."
After answering reporters' questions, Donovan, campaign manager Ryan Emerson and Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont president Matt Vinci — whose union pushed hard for Donovan in the closing weeks of the campaign — strolled down Battery Street to the unity rally. Awaiting them was a phalanx of Democratic officeholders and candidates ready to put behind them a divisive primary that pitted — at least tacitly — much of the Democratic establishment against one of their own: Sorrell.
The state's top officeholders — including Gov. Peter Shumlin, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Congressman Peter Welch, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger — took turns toasting winner and loser alike, committing to fight hard for the entire Democratic ticket.
"Listen, here's the point: We all win from primaries like this," Shumlin said, arguing that the two AG candidates ran "a spirited, issue-oriented" campaign. "Here's the good news: Bill Sorrell will continue to be a great attorney general for the state of Vermont. He will. And we're going to help him do it."
Then Shumlin — standing in front of a dozen or so mostly middle-aged men in suits — saluted Donovan as the future of the Vermont Democratic Party.
"Here's the rest of the good news: If you look around at the statewide officeholders — a few excepted, Cassandra [Gekas, the party's 30-year-old candidate for lieutenant governor] — you'll see that we have something in common: graying hair, wrinkled faces, a lack of hair in some cases," Shumlin said, as Leahy jokingly stroked his own bald head. "And we are growing older."
"But T.J. Donovan has proven in this campaign, without any reasonable doubt, that we and he have a bright future in the younger Democrats that want to lead this state in the future," the governor continued. "T.J., you will continue to have a critical role in Vermont, the state you love, and we're going to stand by you and help you do it."