Donovan to take on Sorrell in primary race for Vermont attorney general

TJ Donovan, Chittenden County State's Attorney

Rumors have been swirling for at least two years — since before the last election cycle in 2010 — that TJ Donovan, the two-term Chittenden County state’s attorney, is interested in wresting the chief legal watch dog slot from Bill Sorrell.

On Monday, Donovan put the grapevine gossips to rest: He will indeed run against Sorrell, a Democrat, who has served as the Vermont attorney general since 1997 when he was appointed to the post by Gov. Howard Dean.

Donovan, 38, shied away from attacking Sorrell directly. “Bill did a great job with tobacco as a public health issue,” Donovan said, and he cited the more recent auto emissions case as another victory for the attorney general.

But that was then (the late 1990s and mid-2000s), and this is now, Donovan says.

“The world has changed,” Donovan said in a telephone interview. “We need new leadership, new energy, new ideas.”

One of the ideas Donovan is banking on is using the bully pulpit of the AG’s office to fight prescription drug abuse. It’s the public safety issue of our time, he says. As a state’s attorney, he sees the impact of the epidemic of opiate addiction every day: More people are dying of prescription drug overdoses, he says, than highway fatalities, and addicts are committing burglaries, clogging the courts and filling the prisons.

The attorney general could address the problem by advocating for change. “It’s leadership,” Donovan said. “You can speak out on these issues, build coalitions … and implement best practices.”

Sorrell has come under intense scrutiny by conservatives and liberals alike for big court losses, including the defense of the state’s campaign finance law and a prohibition on prescription drug datamining that were both struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Sorrell lost the datamining case last summer, and it will cost the state at least $3 million in legal fees. In January, the attorney general was defeated in the first round of Entergy’s lawsuit against the state over Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in U.S. District Court. Sorrell appealed Judge Garvan Murtha’s ruling last month, which effectively allows Vermont Yankee to continue operating past its license expiration date on Wednesday.

Critics say Sorrell’s star may have set. They question his mixed performance in the higher courts and his record of backing law enforcement actions in cases where there have been allegations of excessive force.

Donovan says the attorney general’s office should be more engaged with the Legislature as a complement to legislative counsel. “The attorney general needs to be involved in tough analysis up front so if we do get sued we can be prepared and prevail,” he said.

As for the AG’s relationship to law enforcement, Donovan says, “I think you can look at my record. I support law enforcement, but I’m not afraid to stand up to law enforcement.”

Until now, Sorrell has never faced a Democratic challenger, and despite the blood now in the water, the prospect of a Democratic primary for his seat and at least three pols circling, he has not shown any signs of capitulation. In the last General Election, Sorrell garnered 61.9 percent of the vote as the incumbent. His challenger was little-known Republican.

House Speaker Shap Smith is also a potential contender in 2012, and as time goes by his interest in the race appears to have strengthened. He said in a statement released on Monday, “A number of people have encouraged me to run for Attorney General. I’m giving it careful consideration, and I will be making a decision soon.”

Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R/D-Essex-Orleans, is considering a run, but has not yet announced.

Donovan is undaunted by the prospect of a three-way primary and a strong Republican opponent. “If we give Vermonters a choice, that’s important,” Donovan said. “The more the merrier.”

No matter who else is in the race, however, Donovan is focused on Sorrell. “This is an uphill fight,” Donovan said. “Bill is a strong incumbent, he’s been on the ballot for the last 15 to 16 years.”

The young Chittenden County Dem has a distinct advantage over his rivals: He is in the middle of a four-year term, so if he loses he can safely return to the Chittenden County state’s attorney post.

Anne Galloway

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