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A Very Long Shot: Janssen Willhoit's One-Man Campaign

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Janssen Willhoit - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Janssen Willhoit

The campaign for Vermont attorney general has turned out to be a very friendly affair. Incumbent Democrat T.J. Donovan and his challenger, state Rep. Janssen Willhoit (R-St. Johnsbury), clearly like and respect each other. Both have thought deeply about the law and have often come to similar conclusions.

One big contrast between the two: their political standing. Donovan has a war chest of more than $200,000 and the backing of a well-organized Vermont Democratic Party. And the last time an incumbent attorney general lost a reelection bid in Vermont was 1974.

Willhoit has raised less than $9,000 for his entire campaign. He didn't even enter the race until late August, when the Vermont Republican Party nominated him at a hastily convened meeting to fill out its statewide ticket.

His ability to campaign is limited by his work and family responsibilities. By day, Willhoit is a public defender in Windham County — a four-hour round trip from St. Johnsbury. He and his wife, Sarah, have a blended family of five children, some adopted and some fostered, who range in age from 3 to 16.

What's his reward for accepting the nomination and running a campaign with no staff or resources? A recent poll from Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS showed him trailing Donovan, 56 percent to 17 percent.

Yikes.

Willhoit is unbowed by his long-odds battle. "More than anything, it's just getting my message out there and letting Vermonters get to know me," Willhoit said. "I've just gotta keep plugging away."

And the money? "It's enough to do the things you have to do," he said. "I've been able to get yard signs and [am] still hoping to do some things on social media." Television and radio aren't even in the discussion.

Donovan, meanwhile, has kept his campaign machine in neutral. He has yet to report any spending — at all — on advertising.

"He understands the deal," Donovan said of his opponent. "He understands the disadvantage you have coming in late. He understands the difficulty of raising money late. But that's the choice he made."

The two candidates met on Saturday for a debate sponsored by VTDigger.org. Before a sparse crowd at Montpelier's Capitol Plaza Hotel & Conference Center, Donovan and Willhoit spoke eloquently about a broad array of issues. They were often in agreement — and even apologized to the crowd for the lack of conflict.

Both men oppose sending Vermont inmates out of state. Both advocate reducing the prison population by cutting sentences for nonviolent offenders, offering treatment options for prisoners battling addiction and providing more help for newly released inmates. Both favor lower cash bail to prevent people from being jailed simply due to poverty — but Willhoit would actually abolish bail for certain offenses.

The two differ on transparency of public records, especially regarding the state's role in the alleged EB-5 investor visa fraud at Jay Peak Resort. Donovan's office has withheld many EB-5-related documents pending resolution of a lawsuit against the state. "I've been an advocate for transparency," he said. "But there is a litigation exception. The attorney general represents the people but also is the lawyer for state agencies."

"I love T.J. Donovan," Willhoit replied. "But I do think he's wrong about this. People want to know who is responsible."

Donovan often expressed kind words for Willhoit during the face-off. "I thank Janssen for participating," he said. "I look forward to working with him in whatever capacity both of us are in."

"Whatever capacity," indeed. That sounded a bit like a Little League team crediting an opponent when the game's about to end on the mercy rule.

Which is a shame, because Willhoit has a unique set of life experiences that make him an intriguing choice for attorney general. Not only is he a public defender and state lawmaker, he's also an ex-inmate who served five years in prison on a fraud conviction in his native Kentucky. He has said that his experience behind bars, which included sexual assaults by prison guards, gave him a new outlook on criminal justice.

Willhoit has one other millstone around his neck. The vice chair of his own party, Charlotte attorney Brady Toensing, has called on him to quit the race. Toensing argues that Willhoit should repay his fraud victims, which he has not done. Toensing declined to be interviewed for this story but did provide a written statement. "This issue is not about his legal obligations," the vice chair wrote. "It is about common sense and common decency, which say that he should pay back his victims."

Willhoit addressed the issue during the Saturday debate. "In Kentucky, when one is convicted for the crime I was convicted, if someone completes their entire sentence, there isn't restitution," he said. "Judge me as the man I am, not on the sins I committed 15 years ago."

VTGOP chair Deb Billado called Toensing's accusation "old news" and added that "Janssen is a fine example of redemption. He has done what we hope every former inmate will do with his life."

Since moving to Vermont, Willhoit's record is seemingly spotless. He has earned a law degree, practiced as a public defender, served two terms in the legislature and opened his home to children in need. That was enough to convince the voters who twice elected him to the legislature — and the party leaders who made him their candidate for attorney general — to overlook his criminal past.

In electoral terms, the issue is almost certainly moot. Consideration should be given to Willhoit's recent achievements and his criminal past. But barring a political asteroid strike, he will not be Vermont's next attorney general.

Toss-Up in Colchester

Vermont House Democrats are hoping for big wins on Election Night. They have a long list of districts where they could add to their already sizable majority. But there are a few places where they could actually lose ground. Near the top of that list is Colchester, home to two separate two-seat legislative districts. Currently, Democrats hold three of the four seats, but there's stiff competition for all of them.

Chittenden 9-1, which includes Colchester Village, is especially unpredictable. Recent elections have been closely contested with one exception: Democrat Jim Condon had no trouble finishing first. But Condon died of cancer in August, and his seat remains vacant. His absence makes the race a four-way toss-up.

Each party has fielded two candidates. The lone incumbent is Rep. Curt Taylor (D-Colchester), who's finishing his first term. Taylor's electoral career reflects the story of Colchester politics. He ran for the House in 2012, finishing third by 50 votes. He ran again in 2014, and lost by 40. Finally, in 2016, he eked out a 30-vote win over then-incumbent Republican Joey Purvis. In all three campaigns, Condon floated serenely above the fray.

Taylor is a moderate Democrat who occasionally strays from the party line — as when he voted against a bill to increase the minimum wage. "Colchester has a conservative element and a liberal element," he said. "You have to take that into account when representing the district."

The other Democrat is Seth Chase, a network engineer and Army veteran. Chase says his military experience gives him "a knowledge base" on gun issues. He would have opposed this year's Act 94, which bans high-capacity magazines and bump stocks and restricts gun purchases by those under 21 years of age. The law, he said, "is not going to make anyone safer. Movement should not be conflated with progress."

In every other respect, Chase is a true-blue Democrat. "I'm in favor of reproductive rights, marijuana legalization and a strong social safety net," he said. His top priorities are "an economy that works for everyone, environmental protection and good public schools."

The two Republican hopefuls, Clark Sweeney and Deserae Morin, are both first-time candidates, although Sweeney's parents, Jerry and Joyce Sweeney, both served in the legislature. Clark Sweeney said he was recruited as a candidate by lifelong friend and former representative Purvis.

Sweeney is the owner of Sweeney Refrigeration & HVAC Service. He quipped, "My truck is my billboard." He's also been a firefighter and an auto mechanic. "I've dealt with people's problems and made the problems go away," he said. "I want to take that to Montpelier."

The other Republican, Morin, hit the headlines when she received an anonymous letter containing threats of sexual assault and death. She later received a postcard with the word "NAZI" inside a red circle with a line through it.

Morin is originally from Stark, N.H. The small, northern town was named for Gen. John Stark, who led American forces against the British at the Battle of Bennington and coined the phrase "Live Free or Die." Morin's philosophy reflects her hometown's hero.

"I call myself a liberty-centric Republican," she said. "Small government, big freedom." She asserted that state and federal governments have expanded beyond their "defined purpose," protecting individual liberties and state and national security.

An investigation of the threatening mail is ongoing, but Morin believes she knows who was responsible. "This is how Antifa works," she said, referring to the loose network of anti-fascist groups often accused by conservatives of fomenting violence. "Anyone who disagrees with them is a Nazi."

That remains to be seen. Whoever sent the threats, they're one more sign of our overheated political environment. And it shows, as former state representative Kiah Morris could tell you, that Vermont is not immune from toxic partisanship.

Media Notes

Vermont Public Radio announced the hiring last week of two executives: Kari Anderson is VPR's new director of programming, and RaMona Sheppard is its new director of human and financial resources.

Anderson has been the station's weekday morning classical host and head of classical programming. Franny Bastian's departure in August from the post of programming and production director for VPR News triggered a wide-ranging search. When Anderson was chosen, she was made programming director for both news and classical. VPR president and CEO Scott Finn said Anderson's task will be creating synergies between the two services and a common "personality" for both — "friendly, informal, but authoritative," as Finn described it. "Kari will work with individual announcers on their sound."

The promotion leaves Anderson no time for on-air duties. Linda Radtke, host of the "VPR Choral Hour," has taken over the time slot on an interim basis.

Sheppard comes to VPR from the town of Underhill, where she was finance director and HR manager. She'd previously held a similar position for iHeartMedia, the commercial radio conglomerate. "We're not a huge organization," Finn said of VPR. "RaMona has experience in both human resources and financial management, in radio and in government. That makes her perfect for the job."

Finn became head of VPR in May. When asked if these two hires were part of an organizational shake-up, he demurred. "I don't anticipate any huge changes," he said.

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