Primary races often pose the toughest challenges for voters. Because the candidates often come from the same political framework and their political sensibilities are more similar than not, the choice hangs in the balance of which candidate can do a better job of executing policies that are a hair’s distance apart.
That’s the case in the Democratic primary race next Tuesday, Aug. 28, against incumbent Attorney General Bill Sorrell and challenger TJ Donovan.
Both are competent men. Sorrell has the advantage of 15 years experience in the role, and at 65 has seen a lot of things come and go. In a position in which pursuing justice is the task of the day, a certain age should be an advantage, not a handicap. Donovan, on the other hand, has fresh ideas, youthful energy, a strong desire to serve, and a bright mind that’s willing to probe new ways to approach the AG’s job. At 38, he is now serving as the State’s Attorney for Chittenden County, an office to which he was elected in 2006.
On the political issues — death with dignity, softening marijuana laws, government transparency, as well as other issues — the candidates often see eye-to-eye.
So Donovan has gone on the offensive by attacking Sorrell’s performance on a few key cases, making Sorrell defend his record, and by expanding the scope of the AG’s office.
Donovan has attacked Sorrell for losing recent high profile cases, including Vermont’s campaign finance law, which was denied by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court in 2006; a prescription drug case also heard by the Supreme Court in 2011; and this year he lost a case at U.S. District Court against Entergy to deny Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant an extended permit to run the plant, and which is being appealed.
Sorrell counters that he is defending laws the Legislature passes, not all of which are winnable cases. He says the Legislature has pushed the envelope on some of these issues and his job is to defend those laws to the best of his ability.
Sorrel also points to high-profile cases he has won, including bringing suit against the nation’s largest tobacco companies not long after taking office in 1998. In that case, he took on the tobacco companies “deceitful behavior of lying about the harmful effects of their products” and won a “historic” settlement with Big Tobacco; a victory that has brought in $25 million a year in perpetuity, yielding more than $300 million for Vermont taxpayers to date. His victories, he points out, have brought in far more money to the state’s coffers than the $5 million in losses over the past few years.
Sorrell also joined litigation against American Electric Power for pollution resulting in acid rain falling over Vermont and other areas of the Northeast, reaching a settlement that reportedly was “the largest settlement of an environmental pollution case in the nation’s history.” Sorrell also successfully defended Vermont’s auto-emission standards (the so-called “California Standard”) against an attack by the nation’s auto industry.
Much has been made in this campaign about Sorrell’s performance in these and other high-profile cases, an issue that is particularly difficult for voters to weigh without a front-row seat to the trials or a legal background. A telling sign, however, is a growing number of attorneys and those in the legal profession that are throwing their support to Donovan.
But at the heart of this issue is a more important point: whether the attorney general should pursue a more interactive role with the legislature and be more active in championing its own agenda.
On that score, Sorrell appears to be vulnerable. Donovan says he would take a more collaborative approach with the Legislature to craft the best possible legislation for the state to defend, an idea with merit and a point that several in state politics say Sorrell has failed to do well.
What’s noteworthy about Donovan and his campaign is that he has made prescription drug abuse and tackling the state's opiate-addiction epidemic a leading issue. Specifically, he has championed a 'Good Samaritan' law that would allow friends and family of prescription drug addicts “to get them into treatment, without fear of prosecution,” and also said he would work with the governor to reduce the incidence of recidivism. He would also take a more active role in softening the state’s laws on marijuana enforcement, and he is a more forceful advocate for transparency of the court system and police records. He has, in fact, laid out a litany of issues his office would champion. In contrast, Sorrell’s position in this campaign and for 15 years prior has been to tackle the legal issues facing the state without being as directly involved in what he perceives as the legislative process.
Under Donovan, the AG’s office, no doubt, would more actively pursue these and other issues that are normally the purview of others. Whether that is a good thing is in the eye of the beholder.
Sorrell received his AB, magna cum laude, in 1970 from the University of Notre Dame, then earned his Juris Doctor from Cornell Law School in 1974. Shortly after, he became the Chittenden County Deputy State’s Attorney in 1975-1977, then Chittenden County State’s Attorney from 1977 to 1978. After working in private law practice at McNeil, Murray & Sorrell from 1978 to 1989, he returned to being State's Attorney from 1989 to 1992, then served as Vermont’s Secretary of Administration from 1992 to 1997 under Gov. Howard Dean, until his appointment as Vermont Attorney General in 1998.
Donovan attended the Burlington public school system (as did Sorrell), then got his bachelor's degree from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., and his law degree from Suffolk University in Boston. According to his web site, he launched his legal career as an Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia, then returned to Burlington and took a job as Deputy State’s Attorney for Chittenden County. He served in that position until 2006, when he was first elected to his current position.