MONTPELIER — William Sorrell asked voters to reflect on the past while TJ Donovan urged them to look toward the future as the Democratic candidates for attorney general cemented their cases to voters in the final debate of this hotly contested primary.
After an hourlong debate Thursday that repeated many of the issues that have come to define this race, the candidates departed Vermont Public Radio’s Colchester studios and set out on diverging campaign trails, only one of which will lead to a victory in Tuesday’s primary.
Donovan, 38, sought to bolster his image as an activist prosecutor who will work to enact policy changes customarily left to decision-makers in the legislative and executive branches.
“The statutory duty of attorney general is to defend and enforce Vermont’s laws. But I think after the greatest economic recession, people want more,” Donovan said.
Reducing corrections costs, pressuring lawmakers for more drug treatment facilities, diverting opiate addicts from the criminal justice system and stopping the Legislature from enacting constitutionally shaky laws, Donovan said, “is within the purview of the attorney general’s office.”
Sorrell, 65, meanwhile, hit the highlights of a 15-year tenure that he said exemplified his ability to execute the core functions of the office.
“This is not a race for governor or the Legislature. This is a race to be elected chief law enforcement officer of this state,” Sorrell said.
Donovan continued to hammer Sorrell over the emergence of a super PAC that has launched a nearly $200,000 mass-media campaign on behalf of the seven-term incumbent.
The Committee for Justice and Fairness has seized on a loophole in state elections law that will allow it to postpone disclosing the source of its funding until after Tuesday’s primary.
Given Sorrell’s harsh criticism of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case that opened the door to unlimited spending by such groups, Donovan said it’s hypocritical for him to now enjoy the benefits.
“Stand on principle with me and tell this committee, which is a super PAC, to disclose their donors or take the ads down,” Donovan said. “This is not about legality. This is about what’s morally right.”
Sorrell said he believes the super PC is being underwritten by the Democratic Attorneys General Association and that he welcomes its support.
“What we have here are my brother and sister attorneys general across the country saying ... truthful things about my record of achievement,” Sorrell said. “So I’m not about to ask them to not say truthful things about me.”
Donovan noted that Sorrell himself, in what was ultimately an unsuccessful defense of Vermont’s campaign finance laws, told the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 that “over 70 percent of Vermonters believe that corporations and wealthy individuals have undue influence.”
The attorneys general association, he noted, is funded in part by pharmaceutical and tobacco interests and corporations like Monsanto.
Donovan also spotlighted a letter Sorrell sent to Congress this year asking federal lawmakers to amend the Constitution in a way that would undo Citizens United.
“I just can’t reconcile the letter to Congress asking them to overturn Citizens United and then accepting money from a super PAC that was created by Citizens United,” Donovan said.
The candidates focused on other issues of particular interest to the progressive Democrats most likely to turn out Tuesday.
Sorrell, who in 15 years as attorney general has never pushed the Legislature to decriminalize marijuana, has in recent weeks taken a bullish stance on the issue. He criticized as inadequate the decriminalization proposal offered by Donovan, which, while making small-time marijuana possession a civil penalty for the first two offenses, would restore criminal sanctions for the third.
“My proposal is that it’s the conduct that should be decriminalized, not only the first time but the 10th time,” Sorrell said.
Donovan said few will be unlucky enough to get cited three times. If they do, he said, then maybe they need the kind of wake-up call that only a criminal court can offer.
“I do think there’s a deterrent impact of walking through the courthouse doors and into criminal court to stand before a judge,” Donovan said.
He chided Sorrell for trying to co-opt an issue on which Donovan was the first to take a stand.
“After 15 years this is the first time you’ve taken initiative on this issue. It’s been absolute silence from you on the issue of decriminalization,” Donovan said. “I think it’s another example of where you haven’t led in 15 years. It’s not enough, because you’ve been challenged, to come up with initiatives on the fly.”
The debate underscored small differences in other policy areas. Both say they want to increase public access to records of police investigations. But whereas Sorrell would limit access to cases involving alleged police misconduct, and only in cases where no criminal charges are filed, Donovan has called on lawmakers to adopt a federal standard that presumes all police records are public, unless law enforcement can demonstrate to a judge why they shouldn’t be.
Both agree the attorney general should warn legislators about likely legal challenges to the laws they pass.
But whereas Sorrell says internal staff at both his office and the Legislature are up to the job, Donovan has proposed bringing in outside experts, even if it comes at a cost.
Donovan has tried to lay blame for the federal overthrow of three high-profile Vermont laws — dealing with campaign finance, prescription drug data mining and Vermont Yankee — at the feet of Sorrell, who he said should have done a better job warning lawmakers about the constitutional pitfalls of the legislation.
“We can’t afford another high-profile loss,” Donovan said. “We know we’re going to pass (single-payer) health care, we know we’re going to be challenged. … Leadership is about knowing when to ask for help. Let’s bring experts in early. Let’s not be penny wise and pound foolish.”
Sorrell enters the final days of the campaign buoyed by a newly released but flawed poll indicating he has a comfortable lead over Donovan. He departs for a multicounty get-out-the-vote bus trip today and will stump with his highest-profile backer, former Gov. Howard Dean, in Burlington on Monday.
Donovan heads into the final stretch with new endorsements from the Stowe Reporter, St. Albans Messenger and a majority of the Burlington City Council. He’s also won the backing of virtually every organized labor group of note, many of which joined in a get-out-the-vote effort at the Old Labor Hall in Barre on Tuesday. Those groups will continue to hit the phones for Donovan over the weekend and into primary day.
Sorrell plans to watch the voting results come in from the Courtyard Marriott in Burlington. Donovan is holding his primary night party at the Burlington Hilton.
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