Politics

Sarah George defeats police-backed challenger in Democratic primary for Chittenden County prosecutor

Chittenden County States Attorney Sarah Fair George speaks during a press conference in Burlington on Monday, June 13, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated Wednesday, Aug. 10, at 2:16 a.m.

Sarah George defeated Ted Kenney in the closely watched Democratic primary for Chittenden County state’s attorney Tuesday, defending her seat against a challenger who garnered the support of law enforcement organizations by criticizing the incumbent’s reform-minded policies. 

In a written statement issued just before 9:30 p.m., Kenney congratulated George on her win.

“I know that many of those who encouraged me to run are disappointed,” he said. “I would encourage each of you who work in public safety to work with the State’s Attorney to secure public safety and reform.” Kenney declined an interview request Tuesday night. 

With every precinct in the county reporting, according to the Secretary of State’s Office, George had garnered 53% of the vote to Kenney’s 33%. 

No Republican or Progressive candidates competed in their respective primaries.

This cycle marked George’s first contested election since she was appointed to fill the position in 2017 when her predecessor, TJ Donovan, vacated the office to become attorney general. She was reelected without competition in 2018. 

George said her victory felt “amazing,” especially since it was the first state’s attorney race since the challenges and suffering wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

She contended that some people gave into fear as a reason to question her more progressive practices. Her win, in spite of that, left George optimistic about the future direction of criminal justice not returning to the status quo, she said.

“That they’re not going to go backwards — they’re deciding to go forward — I think is really exciting for our community,” George said. 

The competitive race tested the popularity of George’s progressive policies, which Kenney argued had gone too far. The Williston attorney and selectboard member described himself as the more mainstream candidate and said he hoped to roll back many of the reforms George had implemented. 

Although both candidates are Democrats, George has earned a reputation as a progressive prosecutor. She has opposed seeking cash bail from defendants and has avoided prosecuting alleged crimes discovered through what she refers to as “non-public safety traffic stops,” because such stops disproportionately impact people of color.

Ted Kenney. Campaign photo

While Kenney said he believed systemic racism needed to be addressed, he said he felt that George’s approach to cutting back on policing made streets less safe. His alternative solution to disproportionate traffic stops was that police bias training should be improved and expanded upon.

George serves on the board of directors at the Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative, an organization that seeks to abolish prisons — a position Kenney does not share. He said he wanted tougher conditions of release for defendants awaiting trial and supported cracking down on theft and other property crime, as well as drug-related crime.

Vermont’s first woman of color to serve in the senate, Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, told VTDigger in the days leading up to the election that she believed the Chittenden County state’s attorney race was one of the most important races in the state for Vermonters of color. 

Ram Hinsdale endorsed George, arguing that she represented the best chance at progress in reforming a system that the senator said consistently fails people of color. George also received endorsements from three other state senators, the co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s and more than 50 practicing attorneys, among others. 

Meanwhile, Kenney saw strong support from law enforcement. He received endorsements from five Democratic current and former state’s attorneys and six police unions, including the unions representing Vermont State Police and the Burlington Police Department. 

George referred to her win as “a pretty overwhelming decision” — not just in Burlington but in less progressive towns, such as Milton, Hinesburg and Richmond. 

“That's really exciting to me,” she told VTDigger, after exchanging hugs and cheers with friends and campaign volunteers at her watch party. “It's really humbling and it's really exciting that people made a stand and are really clear on their demand of me as an elected official.” 

Leading up to the election, some Republicans said they would take Democratic ballots just to vote for Kenney in this race, Vermont Republican Party chair Paul Dame told VTDigger in an interview last week. George said she had been worried by the amount of Republican support Kenney received ahead of the election, but that made her savor the victory even more.

“It worries me just as a Democrat that our system allows for that, and that that was the type of voter that my opponent was catering to or to, or was appealing to,” George said. “I never was necessarily worried about the outcome, but I certainly thought it might be close because of that.”

Two more state’s attorneys races

Contested Democratic primaries for state’s attorney in Addison and Washington counties proved to be close races Tuesday night. 

Michelle Donnelly, left, and Bridget Grace. Photos courtesy of the candidates

In Washington County, Michelle Donnelly, a law professor at Vermont Law School’s South Royalton Legal Clinic, was ahead with 38% of the vote, according to complete results from the Secretary of State’s Office. Bridget Grace, a current deputy state’s attorney for Washington County, had 34%. 

In previous interviews with VTDigger, both candidates expressed similar policy positions, highlighting a focus on domestic violence and restorative justice programs. 

In Addison County, Middlebury attorney Eva Vekos was leading Tim Lueders-Dumont, a Washington County deputy state’s attorney, 40% to 34%, according to the secretary of state.

Sheriff’s races around the state

Ryan Palmer. Photo courtesy of Ryan Palmer

Tuesday’s primary also brought contested sheriff’s races in Addison, Bennington, Caledonia and Windsor counties. 

James Gulley Jr., 43, defeated Beau Alexander Sr. and Joel Howard Jr. in the Democratic primary for Bennington County sheriff. Gulley, a police officer in Manchester, will likely take over what has become a department embroiled in controversy. Current Bennington Sheriff Chad Schmidt was the subject of a VTDigger investigation that revealed he has been spending a significant amount of time in Tennessee. He is not seeking reelection.

Early Wednesday morning, with 18 of 19 precincts reporting, Gulley had secured 46% of the vote to Howard’s 22% and Alexander’s 16%. 

In the Windsor County Democratic sheriff’s race, Ryan Palmer, a police officer in Ludlow, defeated Thomas Battista, who currently serves as a sheriff’s deputy in the county. Palmer’s campaign focused on what he called Vermont’s “policing for profit” model, which allows sheriffs to collect 5% of the revenue from their department’s contracts. 

“I want to thank Tom. He's run a great campaign. And I view him as part of the solution going forward,” Palmer said Tuesday night. He’d spent the night around friends, checking his phone, trying to have a “low-key” evening, he said.

“For me, it's about changing rural law enforcement, not just in Windsor County, but across the state,” Palmer said. “If I can be kind of a catalyst to change, then great.” 

With all precincts reporting, Palmer had nearly 45% of the vote to Battista’s 30%. 

Palmer will face longtime Republican Sheriff D. Michael Chamberlain in November. 

The Caledonia County Republican sheriff’s primary appeared to be a clear victory for James Hemond over competitor Steven Hartwell Jr. Hemond, who is currently chief deputy in the Caledonia County Sheriff’s Department, is unlikely to face a Democratic challenger in November. 

With all precincts reporting, Hemond led with 60% of the vote to Hartwell’s 29%. 

In Addison County’s Republican sheriff’s primary, Michael Elmore defeated Ron Holmes. With all precincts reporting, Elmore had secured 55% of the vote to Holmes’s 30%.

In a text message, Elmore said he was “excited and humbled by the victory” and looking forward to the general election.

“I have a great team and County behind me, and I think that shows in this election.” 
Elmore, currently a sergeant in the department, will likely succeed disgraced sheriff Peter Newton. Newton was arrested in June and is currently facing multiple sexual assault charges. Although he is not seeking reelection, Newton has refused to resign.

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Ella Ruehsen

About Ella

Ella is a student at the University of Vermont, where she is majoring in environmental studies and was recently elected editor in chief of the Vermont Cynic, the school’s independent student newspaper. She previously was a reporter and news editor at the Cynic and interned last summer at the Burlington Free Press.

Email: isabella.ruehsen@uvm.edu

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