On the campaign trail with Sorrell and friends: the day before the primary
A day before the verdict on the hardest fight of his political career, Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell was in full campaign battle mode.
He started with a brief 7:30 a.m. appearance on the local Burlington WVMT radio show, Charlie + Ernie + Lisa In The Morning! Four hours later, he was strolling sunny Church Street with former governor and ardent supporter Howard Dean, meeting and greeting potential voters.
Followed by a handful of volunteers in blue campaign T-shirts, the two longtime politicians improvised conversations with anyone who’d listen for just a minute, starting with a few key questions: “Are you from Vermont?” and “Are you voting tomorrow?”
After the pair left Church Street’s Henry’s Diner, where they systematically shook hands with customers, Sorrell told reporters he had few regrets about his campaign thus far: “We had a strategy of how much money we wanted to raise, and what kind of campaign we wanted to run – a clean campaign focused on my record, and we’ve done that.”
Dean dismissed questions about the closeness of the race as mostly pointless. “Anybody in politics knows you have to work as hard as you possibly can until the hour the polls close,” said Dean. “I don’t even think about whether it’s going to be close or not, because it doesn’t do any good to think about it. You’ve got to focus on what you’re doing.”
The former governor said Sorrell’s record as attorney general would serve him well at the polls. In a snipe at challenger TJ Donovan, Dean said Vermont was better served by an attorney general who isn’t politicized.
“It’s better not to have someone who thinks it’s a stepping stone,” said Dean. Donovan isn’t a “bad person,” said Dean, but Vermont is “better served by somebody who’s interested in the job.”
Meanwhile, as volunteers unloaded campaign literature on unsuspecting Church Street passersby, several Vermonters shared their views on the primary. Outside Henry’s Diner, Vermonter Rich Daigle said he was leaning toward Sorrell and cited his tobacco settlement win as a factor, but he was still undecided.
UVM graduate student and Henry’s customer Ruby Daily insisted on a photo with former Gov. Howard Dean to update one she’d taken as a 16-year-old, but confessed she couldn’t vote because she was registered as a voter in Ohio.
Some spectators declined campaign literature altogether and didn’t want to chat with either Dean or Sorrell. Charlotte resident Adam Brown, who was lounging on a Church Street bench, said he didn’t recognize Sorrell after the pair approached him. Brown asked: “What position was he running for again?”
While Brown said he wasn’t paying attention to the attorney general’s primary race, he appreciated the difficulty of trying to “sell yourself to people you don’t know.” In contrast, Roger Blanchard, a high school classmate, remembered Sorrell’s time at Burlington’s Rice Memorial High School, and promised the attorney general his vote, confiding that he’d always known Sorrell was “headed somewhere.”
Back at Sorrell’s spare but messy campaign headquarters at 108 Church St., campaign manager Michael Pieciak talked strategy, as volunteers worked the phones.
Pieciak shied away from discussing recent media controversies, such as an alleged push poll by the Donovan campaign, and he defended Sorrell’s debating performance. He said he detected no particular pattern in the endorsements both candidates have received from elected officials, organizations and politicians alike.
The “retail politics” of connecting personally with voters through handshakes and name recognition is relatively new for Sorrell, according to Pieciak. He described the attorney general as more of a quiet and introverted type, explaining that “he doesn’t look to grab the headlines or camera time.”
Pieciak had a standard response to the Donovan campaign’s criticism that the state needs new blood after 15 years of incumbency: Sorrell’s record and experience speaks for itself. He offered the old saw: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
By about 3:30 p.m., the campaign office is quiet and near deserted, with less than 10 volunteers waiting around for the next campaign event.
At least three assistant attorneys general also volunteered throughout the day. Janet Murnane and Megan Shafritz both made appearances in person, while Wendy Morgan reportedly made calls from outside Burlington. Shafritz and Morgan lead the civil and consumer protection divisions respectively, while Murnane is the deputy assistant attorney general.
Honking, waving and mysterious phone calls
Shortly after 4 p.m., in a push to pepper pro-Sorrell signs all over Burlington, campaign volunteer and Sorrell’s niece Katie Yawney rushed down Main Street near the UVM campus, hastily shoving signs into the grass.
Afterward, Yawney joined Sorrell and 10 other volunteers outside the Staples Plaza, near highway exits to Montpelier and St. Albans. The small group stood by the roadside waving and displaying signs at cars, some of who honked loudly back.
There were few boos or middle fingers, and one man shook a fist out the window, defiantly shouting “Go Donovan!” Others shouted ambiguous and indecipherable phrases through car windows while driving past.
Sorrell stood by in a light blue short-sleeved shirt, as a volunteer incessantly rang a cowbell. Justin Shafritz, the 8-year-old son of assistant attorney general Megan Shafritz, explained that the honk-and-wave “really only helps if they [the drivers] are from Vermont – if they are from New Jersey, they can’t vote.”
After an hour, the group returned to campaign headquarters. On the drive back one volunteer observed with seeming relief that tomorrow, “It will go, well or bad, for us. But it’ll go, either way, and it’ll be done.”
Back at headquarters as evening fell, the volunteers started all over again. Yawney made calls from a voter listed on a specialized directory, reading from a script designed to persuade voters on the fence to lean toward Sorrell.
Shortly afterward whispers began to circulate about mysterious phone calls in which an unidentified caller asks impolitely whether voters will vote for Bill Sorrell. The phone number is based out of Cleveland, Ohio, and voters have contacted the Sorrell campaign with complaints.
Campaign manager Pieciak suggested that an independent political action committee could have something to do with it.
“I haven’t heard one [of the calls], so I don’t know if they’re bad or good,” said Pieciak. “I don’t actually know who’s behind them, and we don’t have the facts to weigh in if it’s good or bad. Certainly people are being annoyed by it.”
Pieciak said that he had asked the Secretary of State’s office for recent campaign finance disclosures, but there hadn’t been a satisfying answer as of yet.
“From what I hear, they’re on behalf of us, so they’re favorable calls, but still somewhat relentless,” said Pieciak.
Sorrell said he was “totally ready” for the primary, and he says “the bigger the turnout, the better for me, no question about that.”
As for the recent Burlington Free Press endorsement of TJ Donovan, Sorrell responded quickly: “I didn’t even read it.” He said he knew back in April that he wouldn’t win the newspaper’s endorsement, because of concerns from the editorial board over his position on government records and transparency. He dismissed those concerns as misguided, and said that they misunderstood the role of the attorney general and the concerns of most average Vermont voters.
As for the toll the campaign has taken on him physically and emotionally, Sorrell said he thought he’d melt and “become a puddle on the sidewalk” come Wednesday, after results are announced. “I’ve been running on adrenaline for quite a while now,” he added. “I know I’ve got this deep-seated fatigue.”
Sorrell said he had no idea what he’d do if he lost the nomination, as he has no contingency career plans.
He described the campaign as “hugely exhilarating.”
“I’m a different person because of this experience,” he continued. “Come Wednesday, I’m not going to regret having these last six months of my life. It’s enriched my life, truly.” And then he continued waving at voters driving by.