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.

Anne Galloway

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25 Comments on "Sorrell loses state Democratic committee endorsement"

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Sally Reynolds
4 years 4 months ago
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… Read more »
Mike Curtis
4 years 4 months ago
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… Read more »
Anne Lezak
4 years 4 months ago
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… Read more »
ron krupp
4 years 4 months ago
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… Read more »
4 years 4 months ago

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):
http://justiceforwoody.wtc7.net/index.html

Julie Hansen
4 years 4 months ago
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:… Read more »
Sally Reynolds
4 years 4 months ago
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… Read more »
Scott McCarty
4 years 4 months ago

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
4 years 4 months ago

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
4 years 4 months ago
“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… Read more »
Karl Riemer
4 years 4 months ago
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… Read more »
Julie Hansen
4 years 4 months ago

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
4 years 4 months ago
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… Read more »
Julie Hansen
4 years 4 months ago
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… Read more »
Scott McCarty
4 years 4 months ago
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,… Read more »
Ellen Oxfeld
4 years 4 months ago
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… Read more »
Christian Noll
4 years 4 months ago
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… Read more »
Scott McCarty
4 years 4 months ago
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… Read more »
4 years 4 months ago

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

Julie Hansen
4 years 4 months ago
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… Read more »
Dave Bellini
4 years 4 months ago
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.… Read more »
Patrick Cashman
4 years 4 months ago

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
4 years 4 months ago

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
4 years 4 months ago

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
4 years 4 months ago

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.)

http://www.pressaction.com/news/weblog/full_article/jackowski01252006/

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