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Come Judgment Day

Better than a courtroom drama: Vermont's primary race for attorney general


Published August 1, 2012 at 10:41 a.m.
Updated November 7, 2017 at 12:35 p.m.

It’s a sunny Sunday morning in Waterbury and T.J. Donovan is power walking down Randall Street with a fistful of campaign flyers. Dressed in khaki pants, a white button-down shirt and jogging sneakers, the Chittenden County state’s attorney hustles from door to door, looking for voters to support his insurgent campaign for attorney general.

Trailing Donovan is his campaign manager, Ryan Emerson, clutching a clipboard with the names and addresses of Vermonters who have voted in past Democratic primaries. At a big blue house next to a cornfield, the candidate finds Steve and Amy Odefey, who are identified on Emerson’s clipboard as supporters of Donovan’s primary opponent, incumbent Attorney General Bill Sorrell.

Donovan greets the couple warmly and asks how their house fared during last year’s devastating floods from Tropical Storm Irene. Not well, says Steve Odefey, noting three feet of water destroyed much of their home — and flood insurance fell short of covering the repairs. Donovan walks around back, where Amy Odefey points out the Winooski River, just yards away, and shows him iPhone photos of the flood damage.

Upon learning Odefey is a resident physician at Fletcher Allen Health Care, Donovan launches into his plan to combat prescription-opiate abuse — as much a public health problem as a public safety concern, he says. He gives her a flyer and asks for her support, but walks away without getting it.

Did Donovan persuade her to vote for him? “No,” Odefey says later. “He had a lot of buzzwords. I really didn’t hear much.”

Steve Odefey chimes in, “I’m pretty sure I’m going to fill the box for Sorrell. He hasn’t done anything to warrant losing the job, and part of the effectiveness of a position like that has to do with continuity.”

Across the street, at the home of Margaret Quinn, Donovan has better luck. After pouring on the charm for about 15 minutes — admiring her Gaelic welcome sign, asking about her hip surgery, sharing Irene stories — Donovan finally hooks Quinn with the same pitch about fighting prescription drug abuse that failed to move the previous household.

“OK!” says Quinn, a retired substance-abuse counselor. “You got me.”

Sorrell is scouring the state for votes, too, before the August 28 primary, as he fights to hang on to the office he has occupied since 1997. Saturday found him pressing the flesh at farmers markets in Burlington and Montpelier before he set out for the Barre Heritage Festival. From there, he was off to a community supper in Calais hosted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

“I’m taking it very seriously, working very hard,” the seven-term incumbent said en route to the Granite City event. “I hit all 14 counties in a one-week period.”

This kind of campaigning is new for Sorrell. Since being appointed 15 years ago by then-governor Howard Dean, the white-haired attorney general has never faced a tough challenger. In the seven races he’s run, no candidate has come within 25 points of defeating him.

“In the past, I’ve just been able to do my job, concentrating on my job as attorney general,” Sorrell said recently on the “Charlie + Ernie + Lisa in the Morning” show on WVMT-AM.

But now Sorrell is in the fight of his life, facing an energized challenge from an ambitious young prosecutor. A series of high-profile legal losses by his office — and a perception among some that he too often sides with police in use-of-force and misconduct cases — have put Sorrell on the defensive.

And it’s personal: Sorrell and Donovan are practically related. Members of their Catholic clans grew up together in Burlington, were classmates in high school, campaigned for each other, worked in the same law firm — even dated each other. Sorrell went to the junior prom at Rice Memorial High School with Donovan’s aunt, Molly Leddy, whom Sorrell calls his “first love.”

Before he was attorney general, Sorrell held the job Donovan has now: Chittenden County state’s attorney.

If Sorrell were ready to pass the torch, Donovan would be a likely recipient. But the 65-year-old Sorrell isn’t ready to hand over anything. He’s too busy crisscrossing the state — and flying to Washington, D.C., to raise money from fellow attorneys general — defending his turf. He’s playing up his decade-plus record of wins in the consumer-protection and environmental arenas, and playing down the high-profile court losses that have saddled Vermonters with millions in attorney fees.

Not content to wait his turn, Donovan, 38, is taking on the party elder with a well-organized and well-funded campaign that has picked up support from young Democrats, old Progressives and numerous labor unions — as well as some very unusual suspects, such as Republican mayors Thom Lauzon and Chris Louras, of Barre and Rutland, respectively.

Challenging Sorrell’s incumbent advantage is a cornerstone of Donovan’s rule-breaking campaign. “Nobody owns that job,” he says. “The people of Vermont own that job. They have the say about who’s the attorney general — not somebody who’s been there and says that he’s entitled or deserves it because he’s been there 15 years.”

Primary challenges against incumbents are rare in Vermont, particularly when the officeholder is as entrenched as Sorrell. And while there is plenty of drama in this particular down-ticket race, it might not be sufficient to inspire folks to get out and vote on the last Tuesday of the summer.

There also may be the perception, as Vermont Law School’s Cheryl Hanna suggests, that the two candidates look like they’re cut from the same cloth. As one prominent Sorrell supporter said privately, “It’s such a bland race. It’s not a Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney. You’re not like, ‘Ooh, that guy has to win.’ There’s not that drive and passion.”

If Donovan stands a chance of beating Sorrell, he must convince voters otherwise.

Law and Reorder

With a budget of $8.2 million and a staff of 120, the attorney general is Vermont’s top law-enforcement officer and also its top civil litigator, enforcing and defending laws passed by the legislature. Along with governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer and auditor of accounts, it’s one of six independently elected constitutional offices.

Sorrell is running on his record, and that includes court losses that have forced the state to cover the victors’ legal bills. Just recently, a judge ruled that the state must pay IMS Health Inc. $2.2 million for a prescription-drug data-mining case that Sorrell’s office defended before the U.S. Supreme Court — and lost.

But on the stump, Sorrell argues that his winnings far outweigh his losses: $120 million earned over the past three years, compared to $5.3 million paid out in attorney fees during his entire term.

Sorrell’s marquee settlement is a multistate lawsuit against Big Tobacco that he signed on to four weeks after taking office. It’s already paid out $300 million to Vermont and will continue to pay out at least $25 million a year for “as long as Americans continue to smoke,” Sorrell says.

In addition, Sorrell is playing up his work on consumer and environmental protections, especially his successful defense of Vermont’s strict auto-emissions standards.

Still, the perception that Sorrell has lost the big ones — particularly the federal lawsuit to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor, now on appeal — has made him vulnerable, says Hanna.

“Had Bill won Vermont Yankee, I don’t think that we’d be seeing a race,” she says, adding that the state’s case was always a long shot.

Some antinuke activists think Sorrell blew it by not bringing in outside experts to argue the case, but others, such as Vermont Citizens Action Network lobbyist Bob Stannard, defend him.

“We had a judge who was sympathetic to Entergy going in and was sympathetic to Entergy going out,” he says. “I want to see an AG who is 100 percent committed to winning this case at the Second Circuit,” adds Stannard, referring to the federal court of appeals.

As Vermont’s top cop, Sorrell is also battling a perception among some that he reflexively backs police in use-of-force and misconduct cases. “Sorrell is generally perceived as defending cops even when they do fairly egregious things,” says Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.

For example, Gilbert cites a series of excessive-force allegations made against the Hartford Police Department, including one instance in which a black homeowner having a medical emergency was pepper-sprayed by police after they mistook him for an intruder. Gilbert notes that after more than a year of revieding the cases from afar, Sorrell finally met with Hartford police and town officials. But no criminal charges resulted.

“Apparently it took three of what I think most people would agree were pretty egregious incidents for him to finally address fairly serious problems,” Gilbert says. “I think that shows the power of the office if the attorney general wants to use it.”

In fairness to Sorrell, his office has also prosecuted numerous police officers for crimes, ranging from a state trooper accused of molesting a teenage girl to a Barre cop charged with stealing a flat-screen TV from under a neighbor’s Christmas tree.

Still, Donovan is winning support from some liberals who see him as a prosecutor who’s more willing to take on misbehaving cops. John Franco, a Burlington attorney and stalwart Progressive, defended the state’s attorney in a defamation lawsuit brought by former South Burlington cop Jack O’Connor. Donovan had refused to prosecute O’Connor’s cases because of his questionable search tactics.

“He didn’t believe in the blue wall” of silence, Franco says of Donovan. “That really impresses me.”

Donovan’s Due

Donovan’s campaign is less about what he’s done in six years as state’s attorney than making a case for new blood in the AG’s office. Although he’s taken pains to avoid criticizing Sorrell in the past, the challenger has gone on the attack as the race approaches the homestretch.

Donovan says it’s a “no-brainer” to sign on to national lawsuits, such as the Big Tobacco case, that bring money into the state, but he says the attorney general must do more than that. “If the hallmark of somebody’s tenure in office is signing on to a national lawsuit four weeks after taking office, I say we can continue to do more for Vermont,” he says.

Mostly, though, Donovan prefers to talk up his ambitious policy agenda, some of which goes beyond what many might consider the AG’s job description. Priority one is tackling prescription-opiate abuse, which Donovan says he would do by treating addiction more as a health problem and reserving court resources to prosecute dealers who profit off the drugs. A pilot program Donovan established in Chittenden County, the Rapid Intervention Community Court, uses such an approach by quickly processing low-level criminals who are at high risk of reoffending — such as those with mental-health or substance-abuse issues — and referring them to services.

Also on Donovan’s eclectic list of issues: protecting migrant farmworkers; advocating for federal marriage equality; labeling genetically modified foods; lobbying for state-level universal health care; and establishing an elder-abuse division to prevent the physical and financial exploitation of seniors.

“Leadership is about speaking up and raising awareness of issues,” Donovan says. “Take, for example, what Sen. Sanders did on gas prices. That’s leadership. That’s speaking out on an issue, and more people are now aware. When people are more aware of what’s going on, we’re better off.”

Donovan’s wide-ranging platform has won supporters, but it’s also led some to question whether he’s running for the right job. During a June appearance on Vermont Public Radio’s “Vermont Edition,” Donovan was talking up the need to address poverty, mental illness and substance abuse as part of a holistic approach to criminal justice when host Jane Lindholm asked the obvious question.

“But are those priorities that you’ll be able to tackle as the attorney general?” Lindholm asked. “I mean, why not then lobby to be corrections commissioner?”

“Listen, it’s the jurisdiction of the attorney general, absolutely,” Donovan replied.

Sorrell picks up where Lindholm left off. “It sounds more like he’s running for governor than he is running for attorney general,” he tells Seven Days. “First and foremost, what the attorney general does is enforce and defend the laws that the legislature enacts.”

Sorrell is quick to add that he’s proactively gone to the legislature “when I’ve seen that our laws should be changed.” He takes credit for a law that requires members of religious orders to report child abuse, an outgrowth of the priest abuse scandals in the Catholic Diocese of Burlington, and for squeezing $200,000 out of the legislature this year to combat child pornography.

On policy, the candidates are similar, but some differences are detectable. Donovan favors decriminalizing marijuana to a certain degree; in his view, it should take three busts for possession before a pot smoker is charged with a crime.

Sorrell says if he were a legislator, he would vote to decriminalize marijuana outright. But as the state’s top cop, he is against passing a state statute that conflicts with federal law.

On Tasers, Donovan recently joined the chorus calling for a statewide policy for the use of stun guns. Sorrell believes each town should set its own guidelines for when police can lawfully deploy Tasers.

Although starker differences are likely to emerge in the coming weeks, Hanna predicts the election could come down to something far more basic than substance or style.

“A lot of voters are going to be making a decision based on that gut instinct: Who do I like better?”

Dean’s List

Former governor Howard Dean has a soft spot for Bill Sorrell. An early endorser, he credits Sorrell’s mother, Burlington Democratic matriarch Esther Hartigan Sorrell, with launching his own political career. When he was governor, Dean appointed Bill Sorrell as his secretary of administration and later named him attorney general.

In the former presidential candidate Sorrell has a prominent champion and a loyal attack dog. At a recent press conference at Burlington City Hall, a stern-faced Dean launched a nearly direct assault on Donovan — without ever naming him.

While a smiling Sorrell looked on, Dean said, “There are some in this race who are coming out with a lot of policy positions which have nothing to do with the job of attorney general. The fact is, the job of the attorney general is to stand up and defend the laws of the state of Vermont passed by the legislature and signed by the governor — whether the attorney general likes those laws or not — and that’s what Bill Sorrell’s done.

“This is a race between ambition and experience,” Dean said, “and I choose experience.”

With TV cameras following them, Sorrell and Dean then climbed the steps of city hall to cast their ballots. Early voting could prove pivotal in a race that’s expected to turn out as few as 30,000 voters. Down-ticket primaries have notoriously low turnout, and the attorney general’s race is the only statewide contest on the primary ballot.

The only poll of the race so far — a WCAX-TV survey in May that showed Sorrell leading Donovan 49 to 23 — did little but confirm what most observers already knew: that Sorrell has far better statewide name recognition.

But Donovan has raised more money. As of July 15, he had raked in $129,710, compared to Sorrell’s $92,536. Donovan has also lined up unanimous support from labor unions — namely, the Vermont State Employees’ Association, the Vermont Troopers Association, the Vermont Sheriffs Association, the Vermont AFL-CIO, the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont, and the Vermont Building and Construction Trades Council. Donovan will need an army of foot soldiers on primary day to turn out the vote — and the labor unions could help deliver the winning margin.

Donovan has another advantage over his opponent: He’s in the news almost every day in populous Chittenden County. By virtue of his day job, Donovan has found himself at the center of the two biggest news stories of the summer: the alleged overtime fraud by State Police Sgt. James Deeghan and the abduction and murder investigation of Bill and Lorraine Currier. Donovan even traveled to Barre — uninvited — to attend a news conference on a state crackdown of the synthetic bath-salts drug.

He’s gotten a few black eyes — including the revelation that he was charged with aggravated assault as a teenager. Donovan also miscalculated, and erroneously reported, the number of opiate-addicted babies born in Rutland. But those setbacks were temporary; neither seems to have slowed Donovan’s momentum.

Sorrell, meanwhile, seems to be less adept at managing a steady flow of bad headlines: a court ruling that orders the state to pay $2.2 million in attorney fees for the lost data-mining case; another ruling officially codifying that super PACs are allowed to spend unlimited sums in Vermont elections. On July 21, the Democratic State Committee voted against giving Sorrell the symbolic endorsement granted every other Democratic candidate.

One of Sorrell’s supporters, state Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), worries that his message isn’t being received.

“One of my constituents said, ‘I want you to go over and kick him in the shins and tell him to get his campaign going,’” Ayer says. “We know the work he does, but it’s not getting out there.”

Some Democratic operatives suggest privately that Sorrell’s campaign machine is atrophied — or nonexistent — after so many years of easy elections. And although he says it’s “gratifying” to hear from supporters, he doesn’t sound exactly thrilled about having to campaign for another two-year term.

“Are there times when I would rather be doing something else — either relaxing or getting more exercise or whatever?” Sorrell asks rhetorically. “Sure. But this is actually a great experience. Come August 29, I’m going to be happy I had this experience.”

Whether Sorrell — or Donovan — will be happy with the outcome, of course, remains to be seen.