MIDDLEBURY — The Addison County Republican Committee is recommending that Gov. James Douglas pick Bennington-based attorney David R. Fenster to succeed longtime county prosecutor John Quinn, who officially retired on Monday.
Fenster’s name rose to the top in a secret ballot vote by GOP delegates that followed extensive public interviews of the four candidates at a gathering at Middlebury’s Ilsley Public Library Monday evening.
When the dust had settled, Fenster topped the list with 16 tallies; Rutland County Deputy State’s Attorney Peter Neary was second, with seven votes; Addison County Deputy State’s Attorney Chris Perkett finished third, with six votes; and Kathryn Donovan Smith, another deputy prosecutor from Rutland County, rounded out the field with two tallies.
The county GOP will now forward the top three names and their vote tallies to Douglas, who will speak with the candidates before appointing Quinn’s interim successor.
It could prove a challenging pick for the governor, whose choices will include the county GOP’s top pick (Fenster), and the acting county prosecutor who has already received Quinn’s endorsement (Perkett).
Fenster — a former longtime Bennington County deputy prosecutor — was the lone candidate in the field without any Addison County ties, though he pledged to relocate to the area if picked for the job.
Smith lives in East Middlebury and served as a deputy state’s attorney in Addison County from 2002-2003. Neary previously lived in the Middlebury area for a dozen years and was part of a private law practice here. And Perkett has served as Quinn’s second-in-command since 2004. In his resignation letter to Douglas last month, Quinn recommended Perkett as his replacement.
But Addison County Republican Committee Chairman Curtis Willey said it was apparently Fenster’s “versatility” in the legal field that impressed a majority of the more than 30 voting delegates at Monday’s meeting. Fenster has handled civil and criminal litigation; has hired, trained and supervised new attorneys; has been a prosecutor; and worked as a judicial mediator, among other things.
“I am not looking for a job, as much as answering a calling,” said Fenster, who since 2005 has been with the Bennington law firm of Barr Sternberg Moss Lawrence Silver Saltonstall & Fenster, P.C.
Ultimately, most delegates were not dissuaded by the fact that Fenster does not currently live in the county.
“The very important thing for me and the other people is that his heart is in serving the people of Addison County well,” Willey said. “He is prepared to work here.”
The interim prosecutor will serve in that role until the next election, which is in November of 2010.
All four candidates said they would run for the Addison County State’s Attorney as Republicans in that election if appointed to the post on an interim basis by Douglas.
Fenster, during his presentation to delegates, noted that the prosecutor’s post is inherently non-partisan — a sentiment echoed by all of the candidates.
But Willey conceded that Perkett may have given some of the GOP faithful pause when he responded to the question of political party affiliation.
“I want to be completely upfront and honest,” Perkett told the delegates. “I would want to run as a Republican; I absolutely would. But as I’m sure many people have noticed, Addison County is beginning to trend toward the Democratic, and I am mindful of that. My intention right now would be to run as a Republican, but I don’t want to make you a promise I can’t keep.”
Perkett said on Tuesday he was disappointed to have not been the county GOP’s first choice and acknowledged his response on party affiliation might have cost him some votes. He said he has not ruled out running for the state’s attorney job if Douglas doesn’t appoint him.
In the meantime, he believes area residents will be well served by whomever the governor chooses.
“No matter what choice (Douglas) makes, Addison County is going to come out a winner,” Perkett said.
The candidates were also unanimous in saying they would have a long-term commitment to the post, and would not use it as a steppingstone to win higher office.
Neary has been a deputy prosecutor in Rutland for 23 years. He currently lives in Fair Haven. He had lived in Middlebury during the late 1970s and through the mid-1980s, working in the legal field — including as a clerk for attorney Jim Foley Sr. He said his wife’s family continues to reside in Addison County. Neary said the Rutland County State’s Attorney’s office currently handles 1,500 to 2,000 cases per year.
“It’s a logical next step for us to be in Addison County,” Neary said.
Like the other three candidates, Perkett has also worked in private practice, in addition to being a prosecutor. His resume includes much work in the field of reducing domestic violence.
Perkett pledged that if selected and affirmed by the voters, he would continue to serve as state’s attorney for anther 20-25 years, until retirement.
“I’d like to follow John’s (Quinn) legacy,” Perkett said.