Following the Democratic primary for attorney general has been like watching a slow-motion boxing match. Playing the heavyweight champ is 15-year incumbent Attorney General Bill Sorrell. In the role of scrappy challenger is Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan.
For months now, Donovan has been throwing jabs (suggesting Sorrell is disengaged), left hooks (coming out for decriminalized marijuana) and uppercuts (saying Sorrell blew the Vermont Yankee case). Donovan has yet to land a knockout punch, but Sorrell has come out a little bruised and bloodied.
Now, suddenly, it’s Donovan against the ropes. Last week, a super PAC based in Washington, D.C., bought $99,000 worth of airtime on two local TV stations (WCAX and WPTZ) to air a pro-Sorrell advertisement.
That’s a crapload of cash. To be precise, it’s more money than Sorrell’s campaign had raised in total as of July 15 — and enough to air the ad 212 times between August 10 and the August 28 primary.
Narrated by Sorrell booster Howard Dean, the 30-second ad shows photos of Wall Street skyscrapers set against ominous music, and then cheerily tells viewers that Sorrell “cracked down on deceptive bankers and won millions in relief for homeowners.” The ad is the first by a super PAC in Vermont.
Donovan led Sorrell in fundraising last month but has no plans to purchase TV time — and no super PAC in his corner. So facing the super-PAC ad barrage, Donovan did the only thing he could do: He branded it un-Vermonty and demanded that Sorrell call on the group to remove the ad “in the interest of fairness.”
“This is not the Vermont way,” Donovan said at a press conference outside Burlington City Hall last week. “People don’t like Washington, D.C., money coming in and influencing elections.”
At first, the Sorrell camp responded by washing its hands of the ad, stressing that an independent group that had “neither consulted with us nor given us any knowledge of the ad” purchased it. That’s important, because if Sorrell and the super PAC were in cahoots, the purchase would be considered a “coordinated” expenditure and would vastly exceed Vermont’s legal donation limits.
But by Monday, Sorrell was embracing the ad blitz — saying he is “very happy” about it — and practically laughing off Donovan’s demands to take it down. “I’m sure he wants the ad to come down because it’s a positive ad about my actual record, and it’s not consistent with the distortions that have been coming out of his campaign about my lack of engagement as an attorney general,” Sorrell told Fair Game.
But Donovan isn’t just whining. He’s calling Sorrell out as a hypocrite for decrying the “corrosive” effects of big money in politics — a cornerstone of the AG’s reelection message — and then benefitting from super-PAC dough in a tough re-election fight. Moreover, Donovan pointed out that Sorrell issued a legal opinion just three weeks ago saying the attorney general’s office would not enforce contribution limits on political action committees that make “independent expenditures” (i.e., in support of or opposition to candidates, rather than directly to them) this year in light of recent federal court rulings.
Sorrell’s non-enforcement decision came in response to news that two liberal lobbyists — Bob Stannard and Todd Bailey — intended to establish Vermont’s first super PAC. The upshot: Super PACs have a license to spend whatever they want in Vermont.
Donovan admitted that he agrees with Sorrell’s reading of the law — that Citizens United does, in fact, permit super PACs to spend unlimited sums on Vermont elections. But he said, “This is different than what’s legal. This is about leadership and doing what is right.”
And if a pro-Donovan super PAC wanted to spend $99,000 promoting his campaign, he’d ask them to take the ads down? Donovan claims he would.
The super PAC sponsoring the Sorrell ad is called the Committee for Justice and Fairness PAC. According to publicly available Internal Revenue Service filings, the D.C.-based group was established as a so-called 527 (remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth?) and has received the lion’s share of its money from the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA), of which Sorrell is a member. The committee established a super PAC on August 9, the day before its ad hit Vermont airwaves, according to a Federal Election Commission filing.
And where does the DAGA get its money? Mostly from multinational corporations and labor unions. According to OpenSecrets.org, the association’s top contributors for the 2012 election cycle include Walmart, the Teamsters, Pfizer, Google and Monsanto. The No. 2 donor to the DAGA? Citigroup Global Markets — the same “Citi” that the pro-Sorrell ad casts as a Wall Street villain.
So does Sorrell see a conflict?
“I wasn’t named one of the nation’s worst AGs by the Competitive Enterprise Institute because I’ve been playing footsie with corporations,” Sorrell replied.
Maybe not. But it looks like corporate America is playing footsie with him.
Occupy City Council
In the minds of Occupy Burlington demonstrators, there’s a lot of blame to go around for the violence that erupted outside a conference of New England governors and Canadian premiers on July 29.
Among the accused: The cops who fired nonlethal projectiles at demonstrators blocking a bus of VIPs headed to Shelburne Farms for a swanky dinner; Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling for erroneously saying demonstrators provoked the shooting; the global forces of corporate hegemony. (OK, I made up that last one.)
At Monday’s city council meeting — the first since the skirmish — it was Mayor Miro Weinberger’s turn in the dunk tank. With the mayor sitting at the council table just a few feet away, Burlington resident Albert Petrarca hurled what might be the ultimate insult in Queen City politics.
“Miro, you went from zero to Bob Kiss in five months,” Petrarca said, referring to the former (and unpopular) Progressive mayor.
Flanked by signs that read, “Miro: Fire Schirling Then Resign” and “Miro’s Violent New Policing Style Has No Place in Vermont,” numerous activists dressed down the new mayor for backing the cops’ use of force before an investigation into the police’s actions had even begun. Almost everyone called for an independent investigation into the BPD’s use of force, rather than the internal review Schirling has undertaken.
Burlington’s Jonathan Leavitt, who sustained 19 bruises from sting ball pellets, said Vermont police have effectively handled large protests — at Vermont Yankee last year, at U.S. Sen. Robert Stafford’s Winooski office in 1984 — without using projectiles.
“Something has fundamentally been ruptured in the social fabric of our community,” Leavitt testified. “This is not the fresh start that people voted for.”
Boy, with incoming fire like that, Weinberger must have been sweating rubber bullets, right?
Hardly. In his measured, bureaucratic tone, Weinberger deployed his secret weapon for de-escalating tense situations: a bland written statement. The mayor said he “appreciated” hearing from concerned citizens and added, “I fully share the goal expressed by many of the speakers here tonight that Burlington remain — as it long has been — a place where all citizens can safely and confidently express their views publicly on all topics.”
Zzzzzzz ... Uh, sorry. What?
Weinberger said BPD’s internal review would wrap up in two weeks and preliminary findings would be made public. The police chief will present his report to the Burlington Police Commission, the civilian body appointed by the council to oversee the cop shop, and the public can testify at that meeting, Weinberger said. What, if anything, comes out of that is up to the commission.
Outside council chambers afterward, the mood among occupiers was noticeably less tense. Asked if the police commission’s review would satisfy demonstrators’ call for an “independent” investigation, Leavitt seemed unsure. “I think we’ll all be boning up on the police commission,” he said.
So long, Montpelier. Hello, Hilo!
Vermont Press Bureau reporter Thatcher Moats is bidding farewell to Vermont and heading west to paradise. Moats, who was part of the three-person team covering state politics for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and the Rutland Herald, is moving his family to the big island of Hawaii in September.
Moats’ wife hails from Hawaii, and the clan is moving to the town of Hilo — population 40,000 — to be closer to her family. Moats says they’re packing two cars and all their belongings into a shipping container and putting it on a boat bound for the Aloha State.
Under the golden dome, Moats earned a reputation as a dogged reporter and a nice guy. His last day was July 20. (As an aside, Thatcher’s dad is Pulitzer Prize winner David Moats, editorial writer for the Rutland Herald.)
Moats the younger tells Fair Game he has no job lined up and isn’t sure he’ll stay in the news biz. But he doesn’t seem to be sweating it. And why should he? A capable journo like him will surely land on his feet. Plus, he’s moving to Hawaii, not Fargo.
“It’ll probably be 75 degrees and sunny, like it is all year round,” Moats forecasts.
Go ahead, dude. Rub it in.
As the Hawaiians would say, a hui hou, Thatcher (roughly translated, goodbye, until we meet again). And, as former vice president Dan Quayle famously said of America’s 50th state, “Hawaii has always been a very pivotal role in the Pacific. It is in the Pacific. It is a part of the United States that is an island that is right here.”
True, Dan. So true.
The Great Debate
And finally, a shameless plug: If you see no other debate in the Democratic primary for attorney general, come to the Seven Days/Channel 17 debate at Burlington City Hall tonight (August 15) at 5 p.m. Channel 17 will broadcast the debate live, and there will be an embedded stream and live chat on our website, sevendaysvt.com.
The candidates will take live questions from audience members and from Twitter and Facebook (Twitter hashtag #VTAG). Channel 17’s Jess Wilson will moderate, and I, political columnist Paul Heintz and WCAX reporter Kristin Carlson will serve as ruthless interrogators, er, media panelists.
Tensions are simmering between Sorrell and Donovan, and this may be the night they finally boil over. You wouldn’t want to miss that, would you?