Sorrell loses state Democratic committee endorsement

Attorney General Bill Sorrell addressed supporters at his official campaign launch in the Cedar Creek Room in the Statehouse May 30. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs
Attorney General Bill Sorrell addressed supporters at his official campaign launch in the Cedar Creek Room in the Statehouse May 30. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

The two Democratic primary candidates for attorney general — Bill Sorrell, the 65-year-old incumbent, and TJ Donovan, the 38-year-old upstart challenger — don’t differ all that much politically. And so other factors, namely campaign organization, endorsements and a candidate’s ability to connect with the base matters — a lot.

That’s why Vermont Democratic Party insiders and outside observers say Attorney General Bill Sorrell blew it on Saturday when he lost the state Democratic Committee endorsement.

Though he received support from the majority of state committee representatives, 16 ballots in all, the vote was short of the two-thirds majority (19 out of 28 votes) he needed to win.

Donovan was endorsed by the state committee in May.

The purpose of the state committee endorsement is to certify a candidate as a legitimate Democrat, or as a candidate who is legitimately committed to Democratic ideas, according to John Burgess, the state committee member from Morrisville wrote the bylaw rule to endorse Bernie Sanders, an independent, for his first Senate race in 2006.

The endorsement rule was not intended to be a vehicle for expressing displeasure with a candidate, Burgess said, but on Saturday that’s exactly how some members of the committee used it.

On the surface, their displeasure centered on two things, Burgess said: Sorrell failed to follow well-established committee protocols and his campaign had a mailing printed by a non-union shop. Burgess also said some were unhappy with his performance as attorney general.

According to Euan Bear, a state committee member, Sorrell “basically had blown off the state committee.”

“Peter Welch who was absolutely a foregone conclusion called me and called many other members and asked for our votes, but Bill Sorrell couldn’t do that?” Bear asked.

The attorney general not only didn’t call party officials in advance to ask for their votes, and he also didn’t file a 10-signature petition in time for the May meeting, Bear said, even though officials gave him a heads-up that Donovan had already submitted his petition. At the time, she said, Sorrell could have easily won co-endorsement.

The final blow? Sorrell didn’t show up for the state committee meeting in Montpelier on Saturday. Instead, he appeared in the Stars and Stripes parade in Lyndonville. His surrogates at the meeting in Montpelier, Janet Murnane, deputy attorney general, and his campaign manager Mike Pieciak attempted to explain why their boss was missing in action, but it wasn’t enough, and Murnane’s presence raised questions about the propriety of one of Sorrell’s employees campaigning on his behalf, Bear said.

It’s the first time in recent memory the state committee has not endorsed a candidate as a legitimate Democrat.

And so what should have been a routine endorsement turned into an official rejection of Sorrell.

In a voicemail message, Sorrell said he was pleased that he won a majority vote. “The minority chose not to determine that I’m a credible, legitimate Democratic candidate and I think that’s unfortunate,” Sorrell said.

“I’ve been elected seven times as a Democrat,” Sorrell said. “If I’m not being partisan enough for some, then I’m sorry, I don’t think that’s consistent with what my oath of office is. The administration of justice in an even handed way is important to me, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. I’m looking forward to the last five weeks of the primary campaign. I have every expectation of being the Democratic nominee for attorney general in the November General Election.”

It’s the first time in recent memory the state committee has not endorsed a candidate as a legitimate Democrat. In fact, Burgess said it’s rare for committee members to vote against an incumbent. Three members dissented in the recent endorsement of Leahy because of his support for the Defense of Marriage Act; and one cast a ballot against Welch on Saturday. In 2010, the party supported all five Democratic candidates in the gubernatorial primary.

The Aug. 28 primary is expected to have low turnout of at most 40,000 voters. (In the last Democratic primary which featured a five-way gubernatorial race the turnout was roughly 70,000.)

The people who do go out to vote will be, as Burgess puts it, “the diehard Democrats,” the activists who go to party town committee, county committee. “These are the people who are influenced by the state committee,” Burgess said. “This is an activist primary and the activists take the time on a Saturday to schlep to Montpelier and vote. The people who vote in the primary they’re the kind of people who pay attention to this, they’re the people who’ve caught the disease of being a Democrat.”

Party officials who went directly from the state committee meeting in Montpelier to the Hamburger Summit, an annual bloggers’ fete in Burlington, were so moved by the turn of events that they began spontaneously writing about what happened at the party and churned out a story for Green Mountain Daily, a liberal blog, within a matter of minutes.

One of those bloggers, state Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said, “It had the feeling of a mini watershed moment.”

“It wasn’t that anyone didn’t like Bill Sorrell, it was a palpable sense that a torch was about to be passed,” Baruth said. “People are always looking for that kind moment to be energized. They see Donovan as young and exciting, but it’s also fact Bill Sorrell has been there a long time. I think he got comfortable in a way of not keeping his connections sharp and fresh with party people, and TJ came along and paid them the respect they were looking for. If you’re in office for 15 years and don’t have a serious challenge that’s one of the occupational hazards. The major thing, I would say, is that it’s reducible to the word change.”

Eric Davis, a retired professor emeritus of political science from Middlebury College and an assiduous scholar of Vermont politics, says while the press pays attention to the machinations of the party, Vermonters, who have weak party affiliations, likely don’t care whether the state Democratic committee endorses Sorrell or not.

Chittenden County State's Attorney TJ Donovan gives a speech at the launch of his campaign for Attorney General. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs
Chittenden County State's Attorney TJ Donovan gives a speech at the launch of his campaign for Attorney General. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

What’s more important is that it’s part of what’s developing as the narrative of the campaign, Davis said.

Sorrell was appointed to the job and never had a serious challenger in a primary or General Election in 15 years as attorney general, and Davis says as a result he has “has let his campaign skills atrophy.”

He was such a shoo-in for so many cycles, that he didn’t maintain his connection with voters and keep his political organization in place, Davis says. “He let all those things go by the wayside.”

Donovan, on the other hand, has been in competitive political races, is hungry for the job and his campaign got off to a fast start, according to Davis.

“Donovan used the spring to effectively line up endorsements, unions, officeholders not all whom are Democrats (David Zuckerman, a progressive, and several Republican mayors have endorsed him),” Davis said.

Davis says his sense is that Sorrell realized two weeks ago that Donovan might win, and so the incumbent started picking up the pace. He announced that he had Gov. Madeleine Kunin’s support, and he sent out a mailing with Gov. Howard Dean’s picture and then held a presser with Dean.

At this point, Davis is giving Donovan a slight edge over Sorrell, because the Chittenden County State’s Attorney has more money and more momentum.

Both candidates are urging voters to cast ballots early. In the last cycle 15 percent to 20 percent of voters submitted early ballots; and that percentage was higher — 20 percent to 25 percent in the Burlington area and Central Vermont region, Davis said.

Read Terri Hallenbeck’s account in the Burlington Free Press.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:26 a.m., July 23.

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Anne Galloway

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  • Sally Reynolds

    This does not surprise me. I feel sorry for Bill but this article is spot on. He took this race for granted. I have to say that I have received 2-3 calls from TJs campaign and zero from Sorrell’s. My door has been knocked on by TJs campaign but not Bill’s.

    Bill downplaying the Dem Party endorsement is not a good thing. He should have been there. He should of prioritized. He needs the activits to win.

    After seeing the front page of the Free Press on Sunday morning — I think this was the killing blow for Bill. The fact that he didn’t make the effort to be there…makes me think that it is time for a change.

    Sorry Bill, I’ll be voting for T.J.

  • Mike Curtis

    The printing was done by Sorrell’s brother-in-law’s company, Villanti & Sons, a local Vermont printer.

    It’s a shame that anyone would use that against him.

    Committee members like Euan Bear come off as sounding petty. It’s foolish not endorse him because he didn’t call her on the phone to stroke her ego. She clearly isn’t concerned about who is best to do the job of Attorney General. She’s concerned about who is willing to kiss up to her.

    These party members are playing political games instead of working in the best interests of the party or the state.

    I don’t know who I’ll vote for in the primary. But I think that TJ would do well to distance himself from these egotistical party hacks.

  • Anne Lezak

    I am dismayed and disappointed with the Vermont Democratic Committee’s failure to endorse Bill Sorrell at yesterday’s meeting.

    I was a member of the Bylaws Committee that crafted the endorsement language. As then-Committee Chair John Burgess accurately stated, the endorsement process was designed for two purposes:
    1) To certify that a candidate is indeed a Democrat and

    2) Provide an opportunity for the Party to support a candidate who is not a Democrat but who a super majority of the Committee agree should receive Democratic support (e.g., then-candidate for Senate Bernie Sander)

    Sorrell is a Democrat, and that should have been the only issue discussed.

    When the 5 Democratic candidates for governor all sought and received endorsement in 2010, no one made the argument that endorsement should be based on a stand on any issue, disagreement with any constituency, or extent of outreach to the Vermont Democratic Committee. This is how the process should work.

    The endorsement process was never designed to vote on who is the “better” candidate or campaigner. That’s what primaries are for.

    Anne Lezak

  • ron krupp

    Years ago – when officers of the Brattleboro Police Department- shot a troubled man with a knife – at the West Village Meeting House in West Brattleboro, my friends in the audience – were shocked when the police shot the man repeatedly. The gentleman – can’t remember his name – died from the gunshots. Bill Sorrell – after an investigation – let the officers off. I was stunned as were my friends in the audience. The police could have shot him once in the leg or subdued him. After that incident, I wondered who Bill Sorrell was protecting – the police or the citizens of Vermont.

    • The name of the person, who was killed by police officers back on Sunday morning December 2, 2001 at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in West Brattleboro (Vermont), you were referring to was Robert Woodward (aka Woody):

  • Julie Hansen

    First, I think the “torch was about to be passed” is little over the top. Mr. Donovan has politicized a position that should do its best to remain apolitical. I can’t figure out what the groups imagine endorsing him will do for them in the event he has bring a suit against them. It has a touch of deal-making that never serves the interests of the people.

    Second, Vermont is going to have to decide if it wants to support small, family-owned businesses or national corporate entities that can afford to unionize.

    The meeting sounded like a Tea Party gathering: you are lock-step with us or you are out. You have to kiss our ring or we will banish you. I was raised to believe that Democrats were better than that. How embarrassing to belong to such a group.

  • Sally Reynolds

    His name was Woody. That was the man who was shot. He was mentally ill and needed help. Brattleboro cops are very trigger happy. They just shot a dog with a shotgun a few months back for no good reason because it was walking around the park.

    I’m not saying I don’t like Bill personally. But I just do not see how he expects to earn my vote as a Democrat when he doesn’t seem to make an effort. And that is not just my feeling but the feeling of a lot of people. He seems to be laxidasical and his campaign appears to be completly inept while TJ is out there, fighting tooth and nail for votes and is running a fairly impressive operation.

    They say that the person who works the hardest wins. It was the case in the 2010 Dem Primary with Shumlin and I think it will be the case here. I think TJ will win the primary if he continues to work at the pace he is working at.

  • Scott McCarty

    From the looks of things, I would think that T.J. simply wants it more. The union endorsements, the ground game and the fact that he’s raised more money are just symbolic to me of what may be coming.

  • Julie Hansen

    I am sorry to think that more money would be a persuasive argument in choosing any candidate. Union endorsements reek of politics and deals. I do not want an AG who walks a party line; I have the old-fashioned idea that equal protection of the law still holds true. That means Mr. Donovan might have to go after those union members as the Chief Law Enforcement Office. But maybe he thinks otherwise. Think about Jeff Amestoy: a republican who upheld civil unions. That takes character, not political savvy or party connections.

  • Karen Golden

    “The purpose of the state committee endorsement is to certify a candidate as a legitimate Democrat, or as a candidate who is legitimately committed to Democratic ideas”
    Attorney General Bill Sorrell has fought for democratic ideas his entire public life. One of the criticisms leveled: “The final blow? Sorrell didn’t show up for the state committee meeting in Montpelier on Saturday. Instead, he appeared in the Stars and Stripes parade in Lyndonville. Instead, he appeared in the Stars and Stripes parade in Lyndonville.” I understand he was not informed about this meeting until too late to change his commitment to the parage in Lyndonville. H e elected to stay with his commitment to the people of Lyndonville. What was the more important and democratic thing to do – stay with the people of Lyndonville or appease the State Democratic Committee. Thank you, Mr. Sorrell, for caring more about us. Please, Anne Galloway, get Bill Sorrell’s side of this. The State Democratic Committee is Vermont polittics at its worst.

  • Karl Riemer

    We get it: TJ Donovan is a consummate politician; Bill Sorrell is not. That’s obvious. Many here assume or state that such a qualification should determine where their support goes. That’s less obvious.
    Let me ask:
    When Bill Sorrell trips all over his own tongue and says things that make you wince, do you get the impression he’s telling the truth and doing his job to the best of his ability, because it’s his job?
    When TJ Donovan speaks glibly to the camera and says whatever he thinks you want to hear, do you believe he believes a word he’s saying? Do you, that’s you, personally, get the impression he’s doing his job for any reason other than attention and advancement?
    Amidst all this hoo-rah about whether Bill Sorrell is sufficiently deferential, sufficiently ambitious and sufficiently yappy to be Attorney General, consider those traits individually; ask whether you admire them in any other context or wish more politicians showed more of them. Ask yourself where you would place them on the list of criteria for likely excellence in an Attorney General.
    Consider that people have lined up to endorse TJD on the basis of a personality suited for reality TV, for sports, for political campaigning, even for county prosecutor, but no one’s talking about his thoughtful, insightful, deliberative, long-range consideration of large issues or benefit to large numbers of people. Prosecuting petty criminals and defending the state require two entirely different mental capabilities and something more than a palpable craving for importance is needed to convince me that Donovan has what it takes. So far, quite the opposite.
    It’s not generally smart tactics to piss off your own state committee, but considering how easily they were pissed off and how readily they translated that into fratricide, it might turn out to be productive. Sorrell’s incumbency, fidelity and record should have guaranteed his endorsement without recourse to pleading, appearing or even acknowledging the process. His performance and his convictions were the only issues, not his facility with flattery. The party committee failed to do its job, voted a false result and besmirched its authority, apparently in a fit of pique over a deficiency of genuflexion. Pissing off people like that deserves a round of applause.

  • Julie Hansen

    Your saying that the AG is a politician does not make it so. What about another possibility? It is not entitlement but a respect for the position. His obligation is to the laws of Vermont as they are written. He has done a fine job of defending those laws. Cynicism will be the end of us.

  • Scott McCarty

    I think I come at this from a different perspective:

    It’s been 15-years and Bill is still in there. Howard Dean only spent 11-12 years in the Governor’s Office with many years before in the public eye. Jim Douglas (even longer) but he only served as Governor for 8-years.

    15-years is a longtime to be anything. From the folks that I have talked to that are voting in this primary, many of them are voting for TJ because they simply want a change in the office. They want to shift priorities slightly. My friend Chris told me that he’s voting for TJ because of the prescription drug abuse issue — TJ thinks it is a priority and has made it a centerpiece of his campaign. Bill didn’t really mention it in his kickoff.

    I like Bill. I think he’s done a good job but I feel like it is time for a change in the office. If Bill wins, more power to him. However, I voted for TJ yesterday because we need a fresh approach in the office.

  • Julie Hansen

    Thank you Mr. Moss, for defining politician for me. I certainly don’t wish to engage in a semantic argument, but I think we understand the American vernacular sufficiently to get the point I am making. Actually, Mr. Riemer expressed it much better in his response.

    As for my idealism, oh well.

    As for your final question. I am indeed the proud mother of Emma Hansen. We have been strong supporters of Mr. Sorrell and that guided her desire to work on his campaign.

    I can’t help but respond to Mr. McCarty’s view that long time service isn’t such a good thing. Senator Leahy has quite a bit of power in the Senate because of his longevity.

    It does occur to me that those who cast early ballots for Mr. Donovan might regret it once they listen to the debates.

    • Scott McCarty

      I actually am in favor of term limits for all politicians including Bernie, Leahy and Welch. 2-3 term max is enough to get things done and then return home and let someone else represent the state.

      I do not think statewide office holders should be able to serve more than 10-years in their position. It’s very important to get fresh ideas and perspectives in there.

      And Senator Leahy does have power in the Senate. I know this, Julie, I’ve lived here all my life and I have benefited from his seniority. I think many of us have (i.e., roads, UVM, ECHO, special education programs, downtown revitilization, Irene recovery).

      My point is that I feel that the AG’s office may need a change. I feel that the issues that TJ talks about are issues that I care about (prescription drug abuse, elder abuse) and are not really being discussed by Bill. I don’t fault Bill for that — he simply has other priorities from me. I don’t fault him for that and I have nothing personal against him. Remember, I like Bill. He’s a very nice guy. However, I feel that it’s time for a fresh approach in the office and some new ideas.

      I also don’t think anyone is going to convince anyone else to change their minds. Everyone here seems pretty set in their ways.

      By the way, I am very confident in my vote for TJ. I’m not going to regret it. Vermonters don’t take their votes for granted.

  • Ellen Oxfeld

    I have a question for people here. I did not agree with Sorrell’s decision on the case in Brattleboro, and I also did not agree with his decision on Pollina’s campaign financing in 2008. In fact, we took that case to court and won because we thought that Pollina should be able to raise as much money per person as all the other candidates.

    However, I have been glad that Sorrell was there to fight on the issues of Vermont Yankee and public campaign financing in general. Even if his office did not win those cases they were the correct ones to take on.

    I don’t have a clear picture of TJ Donovan other than that he wants to the job for sure.

    Given that, why shouldn’t I vote for Sorrell who at least does not appear to be using the office as a stepping stone to a political career? I like to hear what a politician wants to “do,” and not just who he or she wants to “be,” and I don’t think I have seen that in TJ Donovan, but maybe I am missing something.

    • Christian Noll

      Ellen Thank you but you are definately “missing something.”

      During Bill Sorrell’s tenure as Vermont’s Attorney General, the state of Vermont aquired to have the highest police misconduct rate IN THE NATION per capita of officers (NPMSRP). We STILL hold that statistic.

      That’s in the NATION Ms Oxfeld.

      How does our tiny state acquire such a dubious statistic? The Attorney General’s office has much more to do with it than one would think.

      More innocent Vermonters have died at the hands of over zealous law enforcement during Mr Sorrell’s tenure EVER in the history of our state. If you look closely at some of the cases over the past fifteen years you’ll see repeated incidents albeit Taser, Diabetic Shock or live fire arms where private citizens have lost their lives, liberty and/or property because wayward police officers were protected by Bill Sorrell.

      You are definately “missing something.”

      Having said that I’m not so sure ANY new Attorney General will be able to change the massive title wave of police and military industry that has swept our little state.

      It could very well be that as Vermont’s new Attorney General Mr Donovan be unable to better protect Vermont’s peaceful tax paying citizens then Bill Sorrell has.

      But I think a change is far over due and Mr Donovan has the ambition and experience to warrant that change.

      TJ Donovan hasn’t “promised” anything to anybody other than to do his best and to explain where he stands on the issues. The Vermont’s AG office IS a politically held position.

      Sometimes I think that people who try and cover up what’s been going on in Vermont for the past fifteen years are people who what to misinform our public. Its a kind of passive aggresive behavior to lie to the public. The only problem is that when you’re talking to the ever growing number of individuals who’ve experienced, blaitant employment discrimination, harrassment and repeated police misconduct, you’re talking to people who’ve experienced it first hand. Often times these accounts are covered up and lets face it, who wants to talk about bad cops?

      Its time for a change and TJ Donovan represents that change.

      As long as we are talking about the AG’s office I can say that there is a definate conflict of interest in the job description itself. In 2011 the Better Government Association’s Alper Intigrity Index showed that Vermont ranked 49th IN THE NATION for governmental integrity.

      Did you think that Mr Sorrell had nothing to do with it? Vermont scored second to last in the nation because according to the index, Vermont scored a flat ZERO in two areas, 1) Conflict of Interest policies and 2) Whistle Blower Protections. I can speak first hand for both areas.

      Its time for a change.

    • Scott McCarty

      Hi Ellen!
      Hope you’re doing well.

      I can share with you what TJ wants to do and why I am supporting him:

      – He wants to make prescription drug abuse a priority in his office by addressing the causes and finding concrete solutions.

      – He wants to set up an Elder Care Unit that will work to find and prevent abuse both financially and physically of our senior citizens (that’s a big win for me, when I think of my grandparents)

      – He wants to dicriminalize small amounts of marijuana which the Legislature has failed to do despite the Governor’s support. He’s come out and said this.

      – A Second Change Agenda. I’m including the link here because it’s expansive but it offers some interesting ideas on criminal justice reform: http://donovan2012.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Policy_SecondChance_Decrim-FINAL.pdf

      Anyways, those are reasons why I am voting for him based on what he wants to do.

      I think those are very fair questions to ask.

  • And we still have no current or wannabe politician or police officer will to stand up for citizens and against police brutality.

  • Julie Hansen

    Hi again, Mr. Moss,

    I hadn’t thought of it as righteous indignation, but OK. Many folks have been diligently phone banking as well as responding to various postings. I am sorry that my support is suspect because I know the candidate or am related to a member of his campaign. I would guess that Mr. Donovan has many family members engaged in supporting him, and rightly so. It is clear that Mr. Sorrell is not your candidate. Surely we can agree to disagree on that and voice our different views.

    Something I hope we would all agree with is that citizens must engage with the political process and, also, how much we appreciate Vermont Digger for providing an opportunity for citizens to debate and confer.

    One of the most disheartening messages I have received during the phone banking for this campaign, and for previous campaigns, is the number of people who hang up or say they don’t vote or say they want nothing to do with the government.

    It would be great if we could create a campaign to reach out to those citizens and truly expand participation in our democracy.

    At any rate, I hadn’t thought of myself as a surrogate. No one asked me to participate; it is just what I do and what I believe in. I’m going to let you have the last word on this particular string, Mr. Moss, as it has become rather knotted up.

  • Dave Bellini

    I think TJ is doing a fine job as the prosecutor in Vermont’s largest county. His office not only prosecutes “petty criminals”, but also murderers, rapists, child molesters, drug dealers and domestic assaults. TJ has been out in front on Vermont’s drug problem and has examined this issue with a wider lense. I have heard him speak about addiction and drug crimes in a holistic way. He is approachable and down to earth. His desire to hold higher office by challangening an incumbent Democrat is blasphemy to some. He doesn’t want to wait his turn and that angers some people. I like his energy. Vermont would be well served.

  • Patrick Cashman

    This is the section I found interesting “His surrogates at the meeting in Montpelier, Janet Murnane, deputy attorney general, and his campaign manager Mike Pieciak attempted to explain why their boss was missing in action, but it wasn’t enough, and Murnane’s presence raised questions about the propriety of one of Sorrell’s employees campaigning on his behalf, Bear said.”
    Either Mr. Sorrell engaged in campaign misconduct as alleged, or a Democrat state committee member fabricated a spurious allegation in order to torpedo a purportedly Democrat candidate.

  • Ellen Oxfeld

    I just wanted to thank people for all these posts, and I am reading them with interest. I do think the issue of law enforcement misconduct is extremely important.

    So, thank you all for highlighting all of the issues and for your input on this.

  • Kevin Jones

    Thank you Anne Lezak for your important and thoughtful comments. This action reflects badly on the party rather than either of the candidates.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    The AGs chickens have come home to roost.

    Read about how the office of AG has treated Vermonters. (This is just a mild description of events. A lot more could be said – not only by me but also others.)