Bill Sorrell got a boost today as a new campaign ad hit the airwaves praising the incumbent attorney general’s record. The ad, paid for by the Committee for Justice and Fairness PAC, is getting almost $100,000 worth of airtime, according to filings with the Secretary of State’s office.
TJ Donovan, the Chittenden County state’s attorney running against Sorrell in the Democratic primary for the state’s top law enforcement office, said there isn’t much that’s just and fair about it.
The ad features the voice of former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean. The prominent Democrat talks about Sorrell’s consumer protection record as media headlines favorable to Sorrell appear over photos of the attorney general giving speeches.
“I’m proud to call Bill Sorrell my friend,” Dean concludes, “but more proud to call him Vermont’s attorney general.”
While it never says “vote for Bill Sorrell,” the text on the screen as the ad comes to a close says Sorrell’s name above “Democratic Primary, Tuesday, August 28th.”
According to WCAX records, the Committee for Justice and Fairness paid $46,835 to run the 30-second spot 212 times between Aug. 10 and Aug. 28, the day of the primary. Sources say the ad will be run on WPTZ as well. Dana Bykowski, treasurer of the Committee for Justice and Fairness PAC, was not able to elaborate on the specifics of the $99,000 expenditure.
Donovan says the ad is in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision as well as a recent decision by Judge William Sessions in Vermont’s federal district court.
Donovan said the $99,000 ad buy came just 16 days after Sorrell issued a statement that his office would not enforce the state’s limit on independent expenditures in light of new case law. The state’s campaign finance law treats independent expenditures and direct contributions the same.
“I think the issue here is the proximity of the attorney general’s decision on July 25 and now a television ad two to three weeks later,” Donovan said. “This is the closest race Attorney General Sorrell has been in. It seems in the interest of fairness that this ad should be taken down.”
The Committee for Justice and Fairness PAC has strong affiliations with the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA), a national group of Democratic state attorneys general of which Sorrell is a member. Bykowski called DAGA a “major contributor.”
While DAGA has maxed out the $6,000 limit on direct campaign contributions to Sorrell’s campaign, the group’s funding of the Committee for Justice and Fairness allowed them to back Sorrell independently as well.
“Currently, [the Democratic Attorneys General Association is] a major donor for the Committee for Justice & Fairness PAC, advocating on behalf of Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell,” Bykowski said in a statement to the media.
Despite Donovan’s call for the attorney general to ask the Committee for Justice and Fairness to withdraw the ad, Sorrell has no such plans.
“Truly independent expenditures are unlimited under state and federal law,” Sorrell said. “The last thing I would do is try to ask them to restrict the exercise of their First Amendment free speech rights.”
Sorrell said that while he is well aware and grateful that both DAGA and Dean fully support his campaign, he had no idea about the TV spot before today.
“I don’t know,” Sorrell said. “I haven’t seen the ad. I didn’t know there was an ad until I got a voicemail from Channel 3 this morning. I’m told the ad is a positive ad about my record.”
In an interview, Sorrell suggested that Donovan’s complaints come from a lack of familiarity with Vermont’s laws.
“Of course, maybe he’s not familiar with chapter and verse of our campaign finance laws, but if it was truly independent,” Sorrell said, the spending was legal.
“For a PAC that doesn’t do mixed expenditures but does solely independent expenditures, they may not be held to individual contributor maximum limits,” Sorrell said.
Donovan’s complaints weren’t over the legality of the issue, but rather the spirit of the race. He said large outside expenditures on behalf of a candidate in Vermont was not the way Vermont campaigns should be run. The attorney general campaign should be run, Donovan said, as a grassroots effort supported by Vermonters.
“Ninety nine thousand dollars from a Washington, D.C., organization is more money than Attorney General Sorrell has raised from Vermonters,” he said.