House Speaker Shap Smith won’t run for attorney general

Smith told protestors on Wednesday that he wouldn't make promises he couldn't keep. Photo by Josh Larkin.

House Speaker Shap Smith. Photo by Josh Larkin

House Speaker Shap Smith said on Thursday he will not run for attorney general.

The announcement comes after weeks of speculation about whether he would seek the state’s top legal job.

Smith began publicly mulling a race for the post after TJ Donovan, the Chittenden County state’s attorney, formally announced he would challenge Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell in the Democratic primary on Aug. 28.

Though he said went as far as reviewing polling numbers for a possible three-way matchup with Sorrell and Donovan, and explored the idea with politicos, friends and family, ultimately he decided he will run for his House seat again this year and stay on as Speaker.

“The job of attorney general was really attractive to me because it’s about protecting the rights of Vermonters and representing Vermont and what I think are going to be some of the critical issues over next five years, for example, the intersection of state and federal rights,” Smith said. “From the perspective of someone who is a practicing lawyer, the job was really attractive.”

Based on an analysis of numbers from past primaries and conversations with political insiders and others, Smith determined that he could win the race. He told reporters in an impromptu press avail after an anticipated email went out Thursday afternoon: “I wouldn’t have considered the race if I didn’t think I could win it.”

The knowledge that he could have won the attorney general primary, he said, made the decision to take a pass this time more difficult. Had he run, it would have been his first race for statewide office.

Political observers say though Smith is from rural Morristown, his Chittenden County rivals would have gone head to head and divided the vote in the Burlington area, leaving the way clear for the Speaker to marshal his small army of House representatives around the state for boots-on-the-ground support.

Smith, who has worked as a lawyer in Burlington for 18 years, says he knows the city well and would have been competitive in the state’s most populous county.

So why did he decide to consider a run, then drop the idea? “It had more to do with a job I was interested in,” Smith said.

“I realized that the public policy issues that are facing the state of Vermont — strengthening the economy, building out infrastructure for the 21st century, making sure we strengthen the education system — those are issues I want to work on the next two years,” Smith said. “In the end, I realized how much I love being in the House.”

Smith said he had a number of conversations with Gov. Peter Shumlin about whether he should enter the race. “His advice was do the right thing for you,” Smith said. “I think he had a preference.”

What that preference was, the governor didn’t say, according to Smith.

“The governor and I have had a really good working relationship the entire time we served together in the House and Senate,” Smith said. “Though we have disagreed on certain issues, we’ve worked well together. I think you’d have to ask him if he’d rather have me as Speaker or attorney general.”

Smith has served in the House for a decade and the last four years as Speaker. He has presided over the Legislature’s decision to legalize gay marriage and the state’s turbulent budget situation over the last four years of the Great Recession.

Lawmakers and observers in the Statehouse widely recognize Smith as one of the most effective Speakers in several decades.

Was he worried about finding an heir apparent for his role as leader of 150 representatives? “That wasn’t really a major part of my decision,” he said.

Reporters asked if his interest in running was an indication that he felt he could do a better job than Sorrell as attorney general.

He deftly sidestepped the question. “I felt I could bring a different perspective to the office,” Smith said. “The biggest focus of the attorney general’s office is civil litigation. I felt I could bring a different perspective to that than both the other people in the race.”

Smith says he’ll steer clear of endorsing Sorrell or Donovan in the primary.

Is running for governor a long-term goal? “If at some point there is an open seat, I might think about it,” he said.

Smith is a full-time attorney who specializes in civil litigation, intellectual property and insurance law for the Burlington firm Dinse, Knapp, McAndrew.

Anne Galloway

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