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Bernie Sanders

Closing Arguments

Bernie's Republican opponent, John MacGovern, refers to him as millionaire Senator Sanders. But last we checked, he ranked among the poorest members of the Senate.


Published August 22, 2012 at 10:58 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

The two Democratic candidates for attorney general are nearly related. But if you thought their primary race for the nomination would be a family affair, you were wrong.

With a week to go until Election Day, Attorney General Bill Sorrell and Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan came together Tuesday for a Burlington Free Press debate during which the candidates testily cross-examined each other.

Left to their own devices, the two eschewed issues of substance, competing instead for the lowest common denominator. Sitting two feet apart, they spent 90 minutes trading smirks, snide comments and accusations of campaign impropriety.

They became — in a word — unhinged.

Right out of the gate, Donovan attacked Sorrell for benefiting from more than $100,000 worth of advertising purchased by a “super PAC” run by the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) and financed by corporations, unions and special-interest groups.

“This is not individual attorney generals giving 500 bucks, 200 bucks here and there,” Donovan said. “These are major corporations, such as Monsanto, such as big tobacco, big pharma, big oil, funding the Democratic Attorneys General Association, who is then pushing this money into a committee which has not yet disclosed who’s made the ads and where the money’s coming from.”

Sorrell said that even though he’d called for an end to groups such as DAGA when he ran the nonpartisan National Association of Attorneys General, he’s happy for their support and happier still not to know who’s providing it.

“I am not corrupt. I am not for sale,” the AG said. “The bottom line is I don’t know whose money is going into the ads for me, and I think it’s better that I don’t know, because then there can’t be any appearance that I’m showing favoritism to some corporation if I don’t even know they’ve contributed.”

When it was his turn to pose a question, Sorrell read from two emails penned by Vermont Democratic Party executive director Julia Barnes indicating Donovan scuttled a proposed “dry run” of the party’s get-out-the-vote system during next Tuesday’s election. Sorrell said that by asking the party to cease and desist from the effort, Donovan was engaging in “antidemocratic” tactics.

 Presumably, higher turnout among less engaged voters — the target of the party’s “dry run” — would help Sorrell, who by virtue of his tenure is better known by Vermonters, but who appears to generate less fervent support than his challenger.

“The answer to your question is we want to enhance voter turnout,” Donovan parried. “We want to enhance our voter turnout.”

The closest the candidates came to engaging in a substantive, issues-oriented debate came halfway through, when Donovan accused Sorrell of inflating his role in a national mortgage fraud settlement. Then Sorrell tried to nail Donovan down on precisely what he would cut to pay for outside attorneys to defend the state in complex constitutional cases. But even those topics devolved into nasty, back-and-forth exchanges, colored by childish body language and outbursts.

During one of Donovan’s answers, Sorrell rested his head on his hand, smirking. Donovan, meanwhile, appeared as if he’d contracted rabies and might bite Sorrell’s head off at any point.

The denouement came near the debate’s conclusion, when both candidates for Vermont’s top law-enforcement job accused each other of breaking the law.

Referring to an incident in Brattleboro, in which Donovan’s campaign asked for absentee ballots to be sent to a couple who did not want them, Sorrell said his campaign had heard similar complaints from town clerks throughout the state.

“It appears that at least there’s some evidence of sort of a widespread pattern of requesting early ballots on behalf of those who didn’t in fact authorize it,” Sorrell said. “Since those are violations of election laws, how do you respond to that?”

“Let me tell you, I don’t want to send anybody a ballot who’s not going to vote for me,” Donovan said. “But let me be clear, if you want to infer any impropriety, file a complaint, Bill.”

Then Donovan turned the allegation around, warning Sorrell that he should be “very careful about any alleged coordination” between members of his campaign and the super PAC supporting him.

Asked by Free Press editor Mike Killian whether he had proof of such coordination between the campaign and super PAC, which would be illegal, Donovan demurred, saying, essentially, that if Sorrell “wants to muddy this campaign by bringing in hearsay,” he would, too.

“Bill, I’ve heard numerous complaints about your campaign,” Donovan continued.

“Of violating the law?” Sorrell asked.


“Wow,” Sorrell said. “Wow.”

“Now if you want to go down this road, I’m glad to do it,” Donovan said.

“Where’s the proof?” Sorrell said. “I’m saying no coordination. Not guilty. Innocent. I know the laws, and my campaign has abided by and will continue to abide by Vermont’s campaign laws.”

So who won this bare-knuckle debate? Republican candidate for attorney general Jack McMullen.

When Radio Hosts Attack

Longtime Democratic political operative Kate O’Connor is fending off an attack in her bid for an open House seat in Brattleboro — but it’s not coming from her Democratic primary opponent, restaurateur Tristan Toleno.

Instead, local radio host Steve West — whose morning show on Saga Communications-owned WKVT can be heard throughout Windham County — has been waging an all-out assault on O’Connor’s character. West has accused O’Connor of “lying” about her involvement with Republican Richard Tarrant’s 2006 campaign against then-Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for an open U.S. Senate seat.

 In a string of emails West sent to O’Connor, and then forwarded to the press, the radio host accused O’Connor of downplaying her “role in trying to elect an obscenely wealthy conservative Republican over the most popular, populist politician in Vermont history” — both on his show and in this column.

“I call it lying, and I don’t mind using that term,” West wrote to O’Connor, conceding he’s a next-door neighbor and “close friend” of O’Connor’s opponent.

 O’Connor took the bait. “Is Steve’s charge that I’m ‘lying’ the official position of WKVT?” O’Connor wrote to the host in an email cc’d to Toleno, and to West’s boss, program director Peter Case. “If so, I ask for the name of the appropriate manager for me to contact at Saga Communications.”

For the record, Case says that’s not WKVT’s position, but that West is free to “do and say what he wants as a voter in District 3.”

Now both sides are accusing the other of “bullying.”

So is there any merit to West’s allegations?

In recent news stories, O’Connor plays down her nine-month, paid gig in the Tarrant campaign, saying her chief job was to “educate” the candidate about Democratic priorities — not to undermine Sanders.

 Asked to elaborate, the longtime aide to former governor Howard Dean and daughter of former House Speaker Timothy O’Connor tells Fair Game she wasn’t involved in any of the campaign’s political strategy — except, she says, when she “told them a couple times, ‘That’s stupid.’”

“I was doing substantive, big-policy stuff,” she elaborates, though she says she did not share all of Tarrant’s convictions — such as his pro-life stance.

 Precisely what the veteran strategist did for the Tarrant campaign isn’t totally clear — nor was it at the time. As my predecessor, Peter Freyne, wrote in October 2006, O’Connor “is doing something — we’re not sure exactly what — for Richard Tarrant’s U.S. Senate ego trip.”

One thing O’Connor says she definitely wasn’t doing was going after Sanders, whom she now supports.

 “I made very clear to everyone in the campaign from the very beginning, ‘I’m not going to say anything negative about Bernie Sanders,’” she recalls.

But when the Sanders campaign called out Tarrant for using footage of the congressman out of context for an attack ad, it was O’Connor who told the Associated Press that the campaign had decided to pull the ad. And when Sanders proposed a set of ground rules to keep the race positive and reduce the influence of out-of-state money, it was O’Connor who slammed the plan.

As Freyne reported at the time, O’Connor called Sanders’ proposed ground rules a “four-point incumbency protection plan.”

 And that’s not campaign strategy?

So is O’Connor guilty of lying about her past? If you ask me, she’s acting just like what she aspires to be: a politician.

Million-Dollar Bernie?

You could be forgiven for forgetting that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has not one, but two Republican opponents vying for a chance to take on Vermont’s favorite socialist this November: John MacGovern of Windsor and Brooke Paige of Washington.

Last week one of them showed signs of life. Rousing himself from a deep campaign slumber, MacGovern issued a late-Friday-afternoon press release, in which he “Dares Vermont’s Junior Senator to Offer Solutions, Not More Criticism.”

 We could just picture Bernie seething in his Senate office, summoning his inner Indiana Jones: “Don’t call me junior!”

Junior wasn’t the only appellative flung Bernie’s way. MacGovern’s release referred to his foe as “millionaire Senator Sanders.” Now, we’ve heard people call Ol’ Bernardo plenty of things, but millionaire?! Last we checked, Junior and his senior friend, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) consistently ranked among the “poorest” 15 members of the Senate.

Hey, everything’s relative.

A quick review of Bernie’s 2011 financial disclosure report shows him with assets worth $231,000 to $690,000, minus liabilities ranging from $105,000 to $265,000. We’ve never been terribly good at math, but that sure don’t sound like millionaire money to us.

Media Notes

Longtime Burlington Free Press reporter Matt Sutkoski is tying the knot Sunday with Jeff Modereger, a scenic designer and professor in the University of Vermont’s theatre department. Staged at the Royall Tyler Theater on a set Modereger built for the purpose, the wedding will mimic a full-on theatrical production, replete with songs, a script and a “production call” in place of a rehearsal. Congrats to the grooms and, as they say, break a leg!