Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan officially launched his campaign for Vermont Attorney General last night in front of a crowd of more than 100 family members, friends and supporters.
Donovan is challenging 15-year incumbent Bill Sorrell in the Democratic primary. Both men come from prominent political families in Burlington, and the matchup has been billed as the most exciting political race to watch this campaign season.
At his first formal campaign event at the St. John’s Club in Burlington, Donovan said the office needed a strong collaborative leader.
“I’m going to be an Attorney General who creates partnerships that’s not only tough on crime, but smart on crime,” he said in a speech.
The biggest problem facing Vermont right now, in Donovan’s view, is prescription drug abuse. This session, lawmakers failed to broker an agreement for allowing police access to the state prescription drug database.
He said law enforcement officers should be required to obtain a warrant to access personal medical information — an issue of contention in the final days of the legislative session. Access to the database, he said, would enable officers to better target enforcement efforts.
“You want my health information, you need a warrant,” Donovan said. “It’s a complicated issue but I think it’s an issue — I don’t have a problem with a debate. A debate’s a good thing. It’s a debate worth having and the Attorney General needs to be involved on these issues. These are the issues of the day.”
Donovan said the state needed to continue to work on solutions, including better collaboration between the medical community, law enforcement and the court system.
“It can’t be a county-wide solution to a statewide problem,” he said. “We need leadership. Obviously the Attorney General, he’s the chief law enforcement officer in the state, needs to be involved.”
The candidate’s mother, Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Chittenden, wasn’t the only politician in the crowd. Secretary of State Jim Condos was there collecting signatures for his campaign, though he has not officially backed Donovan.
Donovan has garnered the endorsements of more than 100 Vermont lawyers and several endorsements from the right. Republican Rutland Mayor Chris Louras publicly endorsed him Wednesday and the Vermont Sherriffs Association threw its support behind him last week. Both said they were drawn to Donovan’s approach to crime.
Donovan said his father – a Vermont lawyer who was known for serving the underdog – had the philosophy he hopes to bring to the Attorney General’s office.
“I’m running for guys like my father, who worked hard, played by the rules,” Donovan said. “No matter the obstacles, no matter the struggles, he got up every day, went to work, provided for his family, gave back to his community. The Attorney General of this state should do the same for the people of Vermont. The Attorney General should be the people’s lawyer.”
Pam Greene, executive director of Mercy Connections, a group that helps women transition out of Vermont’s corrections system, introduced Donovan at the event.
“I know TJ, behind the scenes, often is involved in nonprofit work,” she said. “He’s doing the right thing when nobody is looking.”
Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College and a frequent pundit, says Donovan has a chance to beat out Sorrell even though a primary race against an incumbent is an uphill battle.
“I think TJ is off to a good start, but what he wants to do is historically unprecedented — no democratic statewide officeholder has ever lost a primary,” Davis said.
Sorrell’s campaign is getting support from former Gov. Howard Dean’s political machine, Davis said. Kate O’Connor, a longtime Dean staffer, is fundraising for Sorrell. Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, is Sorrell’s treasurer.
Davis says the Democratic primary on Aug. 28 will have a very low turnout of 30,000 to 40,000 voters (as opposed to 70,000 in 2010 when five Democrats were vying for the governor’s race). For that reason, he says, it will be an unpredictable year and one that could favor a newcomer like Donovan.