MONTPELIER — Attorney General William Sorrell struck a defiant tone Monday, ceding no ground to the Democratic insiders who dealt his candidacy a surprise snub over the weekend.
Two days after the Vermont Democratic Party’s state committee refused to endorse their own incumbent officeholder, Sorrell dismissed grievances cited by some of his critics.
A number of committee members criticized Sorrell’s political “complacency” in recent years, saying a lack of attention to the party apparatus had cost him the allegiance of diehard Democrats.
The 15-year incumbent said Monday that any overt displays of partisanship would have undermined his role as the state’s top law enforcement officer.
“I’m the attorney general. I take an oath to justice. And that doesn’t mean partisan political justice,” Sorrell said. “I make no apologies for trying to see that justice is served evenhandedly.”
State committee members also expressed dismay over Sorrell’s use of a non-union print shop to produce his statewide campaign mailings. Sorrell said he’ll make no apologies for contracting with a print shop started by his late brother-in-law.
Sorrell said the shop remains a family-owned Vermont business and that the company — Villanti & Sons, Printers — has given him a cut-rate deal on printing jobs for years.
“It’s a Vermont company, Vermont workers are doing the work, and it has nothing to do with anti-union bias,” Sorrell said. “It’s a family business that wants to support me in my campaign, and I’m proud to have it.”
Sorrell’s comments came after a shocking vote in Montpelier on Saturday morning at which 12 members of the Democratic State Committee determined that the seven-term attorney general didn’t merit an endorsement in his own party’s primary.
Sorrell is fending off a challenge from Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan, who won the party’s endorsement in May.
Party bylaws allow the committee to endorse multiple candidates in the same race. In 2010, the committee endorsed all five Democrats running in the gubernatorial primary.
Though Sorrell won a majority of the 28 votes cast Saturday — the final tally was 16 to 12 — he needed a majority of two-thirds plus one to secure the endorsement.
“I interpret it that there’s a minority of the state committee that favors my opponent and are trying to assist his candidacy,” Sorrell said.
Kathy Hall, one of three Rutland County residents on the state committee, said the group “misused” its power to make a political point Saturday. She said the committee endorsement is generally viewed as a “Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” not a referendum on the merits of a particular candidate.
“The process exists to make sure candidates who aren’t Democrats don’t try to hijack our ballot,” Hall said. “I think we look kind of foolish now. Attorney General Sorrell has run as a Democrat all these years, and for us now to say he’s not a Democrat is ludicrous.”
Democratic Party Chairman Jake Perkinson said the vote underscored some underlying confusion about what precisely the endorsement signifies.
“At the state committee meeting itself there were various interpretations of what it means,” Perkinson said. “The bylaws are a lot like the Constitution, where you think the plain language makes simple sense, but when look at it and analyze it in the context of certain situations it becomes less clear.”
Perkinson said Sorrell will continue to have access to the party’s resources, which include voter checklists that both Donovan and Sorrell will be relying on in the coming weeks to identify possible supporters.
But Hall said she’s worried the snub Saturday will be construed by casual observers of party politics as a vote of no confidence.
“I absolutely worry that this could affect the way people are looking at this race,” she said.
Sorrell wasn’t at the meeting; his campaign manager and deputy attorney general attended on his behalf. He said his campaign wasn’t informed of the meeting until Friday afternoon and that he doesn’t regret not being there.
“For some reason we didn’t receive earlier email notices that had been sent to others,” Sorrell said. “And I had commitments to be in Lyndonville Saturday morning.”
After going seven-for-seven as a Democrat in statewide elections, Sorrell said it feels strange to have to defend his party credentials.
“I’ve been endorsed by Howard Dean and Madeline Kunin. … To question my Democratic credentials now?” Sorrell said. “I don’t know. I’m just going to move on from this, but I was surprised and disappointed by the vote.”
He said he hopes the state committee vote will have the effect of energizing his own base of supporters, many of whom might have previously thought his victory in the Aug. 28 primary was a fait accompli.
Sorrell held a 23-point lead over Donovan in a poll conducted in May.
“This is potentially a good thing to have my supporters know that this is a serious race, and the importance of getting out and voting in the primary,” Sorrell said.
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