The Democratic candidates for attorney general worked hard Tuesday night to emphasize their differences in a race where both candidates largely agreed on the issues.
In a debate sponsored by Seven Days and Channel 17, incumbent AG Bill Sorrell faced off against challenger TJ Donovan, differing over the “soda tax,” the corrections budget and GMO labeling.
On other issues the candidates were in synch. Sorrell and Donovan lined up on a philosophical exemption for parents who don’t want to immunize their children (removing the exemption could open the state to a lawsuit, they said), pension forfeiture for state workers convicted of embezzlement (we should have a law on the books), and F-35s (the planes should be flown over communities that would be in the fly zone).
The rhetoric that’s become typical of this summer’s biggest race prevailed Wednesday night. Donovan pointed out Sorrell’s recent losses defending state laws and promised he would make an up-front effort to consult the Legislature as lawmakers craft legislation that might draw fire in the courts. Sorrell talked about his record on consumer protection and his opponent’s lack of experience.
The differences between the two candidates sharpened when they were allowed to ask questions of each other. Donovan (who won the pre-debate coin toss) started with the corrections budget.
“In the last 15 years, the corrections budget has gone up 175 percent,” Donovan said. “What initiatives have you implemented to address the issues of substance abuse, mental illness and poverty in the criminal justice system in Vermont?”
Sorrell responded that his office helped develop Act 80, a 2004 law that set aside $50,000 from the state budget to develop a training program to help officers respond effectively to mental health crises. He didn’t address the issues of drugs or poverty.
Then Sorrell asked Donovan a question that split hairs, and it backfired.
“Do you believe that the Legislature can pass a statute that has mandated labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms and that that statute would not be seriously challenged in court?” Sorrell asked.
“I have been critical of your lack of engagement in the Legislature,” Donovan said unabashedly. “I think the answer is this: You can never prevent a lawsuit, but you can prevent a good lawsuit.”
In reference to Vermont’s recent high-profile loss in the U.S. Supreme Court — the prescription drug case, which Sorrell argued himself — Donovan took a passive aggressive swipe.
“My position is this, Bill: I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but I know when to ask for help,” Donovan said.
While the debate’s most incisive moments were responses to candidates’ questions, Sorrell found himself with nothing to say twice in a row while Donovan rallied the crowd in response to an audience question directed to Sorrell.
WCAX’s Kristin Carlson asked the candidates what they thought was the most important decision to come out of the Vermont Supreme Court this year. Sorrell got to answer first.
“Hmm, let me think about that,” Sorrell said. “Um, I … no case comes to mind right now as the most important decision out of the Vermont Supreme Court. I can think of several out of the U.S. Supreme Court that I would say is the most important out of the last year but I don’t have one that readily comes to mind out of the Vermont Supreme Court.”
Donovan had a ready answer.
“I think the Rutland Herald decision, which basically put the ball back in the court of the Legislature on the issue of public disclosure, has been a much-debated topic for many folks,” he said. “I think we all can agree that whether it’s 200 or 300 exemptions, that’s a lot — that’s too many.”
Donovan kept talking about public records, as Sorrell sat in silence.
“Attorney General Sorrell,” Donovan said “in 15 years, what have you done to propose new legislation on public records?”
“Um,” Sorrell said slowly, “I … can’t think of what I’ve done on public records.” As he formulated his answer, he sped up a bit. “Because I think that the Legislature, by and large, has come down on the side of personal privacy for Vermonters.” He pointed out that his office won the Rutland Herald case.
Blaming the Legislature has been a common refrain for Sorrell this summer. He has said his losses are the price an attorney general must pay in a state that passes legislation that pushes legal limits.