NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said he is taking his re-election bid seriously as he faces the most serious challenge for the office in his 15-year tenure.
Sorrell faces a primary challenge from Chittenden County State's Attorney TJ Donovan, a position Sorrell previously held. Donovan has snagged several high-profile endorsements, including from Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sorrell, in an interview Wednesday, said Donovan's campaign is "definitely a serious challenge," prompting him to hire his first paid campaign staffers since 1998. Sorrell said he expects it will cost his campaign about $40,000 to run in the primary election.
"I have paid staff, full-time staff for the summer. We're already doing some phone banking and some door-to-door work," he said. "I'm taking it very seriously."
Sorrell said he is making the case to voters that he has worked on a wide range of issues to protect Vermonters. "You get to protect the environment, protect kids, protect vulnerable seniors, uphold the laws. It's very rewarding work," he said.
Donovan faces a tough challenge -- unseating an entrenched incumbent. Sorrell said the two seem to agree in most areas, which could make Donovan's task more difficult.
"The truth of the matter is, with limited exceptions, there are few very real policy differences between my opponent and myself," Sorrell said.
One area of disagreement is Sorrell's appeal of a federal judge's ruling that found the Legislature erred when it passed a law that granted it power to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
Sorrell said he appealed the decision because it could set "very, very bad precedents going forward."
"That was just fundamentally the thing I had to do, in my view. I had no second thoughts about it," he said. "We are aggressively litigating that case and will continue to do so."
Sorrell said other states have since signed on in support of the state's position.
Meanwhile, Sorrell said Donovan's assertion that the attorney general's office under Sorrell's tenure has not provided enough guidance to the Legislature to create laws that pass constitutional muster is unfounded.
"We are very active in the Legislature and under statute when the Legislature asks us we are to give opinions to the Legislature on the constitutionality of what they're considering," he said. "What I've heard (Donovan) say is that the AG should work more closely with the Legislature so that they will enact laws that will be able to be successfully defended on appeal. The reality is, we've lost two cases at the U.S. Supreme Court. In both of those cases, we were very active in the Legislature."
"If TJ Donovan is of the view that we take a hands off attitude in the Legislature he's just dead wrong on that.
Sorrell said he has defended laws that lawmakers have wanted to move forward on, including some that pushed boundaries. A campaign finance law struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court had restrictions on campaign expenditures that no state had ever pursued, he said.
"We went into the Legislature and said, ‘This is uncharted territory and there is one U.S. Supreme Court case that has allowed some reduction in contributions in order to avoid the appearance of corruption impacting your political processes. There is no state that has limited expenditures, and in all probability there will be a lawsuit that will be brought,'" Sorrell said.
The state successfully defended the law in lower courts but was ultimately dealt a blow by the nation's highest court, Sorrell said. "We won at the trial level, we won at the intermediate federal appeals court level, and then we ran into the same court that handed down the Citizens United case and we got struck down," he said.
Both candidates have expressed support for limited police access to the state's prescription drug database to curb a growing problem with doctor shopping and prescription drug abuse. Sorrell said he supports a bill approved by the Senate but rejected by the House that would have allowed law enforcement access to select investigators.
"I think on the balancing of privacy versus state attempts to protect us from drug abuse, I come down on the side of the Senate on that issue," Sorrell said.
The Seven Days weekly newspaper published a story Wednesday about a misdemeanor criminal assault charge against Donovan as an 18-year-old recent high school graduate about 20 years ago. Donovan told the paper it was mistake that he was ashamed and embarrassed about, but one that has helped him show empathy as a prosecutor to first-time offenders who need a second chance.
Sorrell said Wednesday that voters will draw their own conclusions about that past incident. He also said it does not mean Donovan could not serve well in the post.
"I don't think it effects your ability to be a strong enforcer of the law. I guess it would be in the eyes of the voter if your past, of whatever sort, how that impacts your qualifications," Sorrell said. "I'd like to meet somebody who didn't make a mistake as a kid."
Sorrell was first appointed to the AG position in 1997 by former Gov. Howard Dean. He has won re-election every two years since then.