Fair or unfair, the perception is that Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s string of high-profile legal losses led him to the political fight of his life. Now, with a month remaining in his Democratic primary race against challenger T.J. Donovan — the Chittenden County state’s attorney — Sorrell’s facing another perception problem: that his reelection campaign is asleep at the switch.
The latest blow fell over the weekend, when Democratic activists and party officials declined to bestow the ceremonial endorsement of the Democratic State Committee on Sorrell, the party’s longest-serving statewide officeholder.
“I think the vote was an indication of years of frustration on the part of some Democratic Party activists, and while it’s a harsh option, there’s a reason why these kinds of procedures exist,” says Matt Levin, a Washington County party delegate. “At some point people say, ‘Enough!’ And in this case, 12 people did.”
Practically speaking, Sorrell’s inability to marshal a two-thirds majority of the 28 party diehards who showed up to the Montpelier meeting Saturday morning comes with zero consequences: Party chairman Jake Perkinson says Sorrell will have access to the same resources as Donovan, who secured the committee’s endorsement in May. Oddly, multiple candidates can receive the party’s endorsement; all five Dems in the 2010 gubernatorial primary did.
But from a messaging perspective, the party’s face slap to Sorrell was significant. Blasted across the front page of the Burlington Free Press Sunday morning was the headline, “A Sorrell setback.” And with a slow summer month to go before the August 28 primary, the incumbent AG finds himself talking about process — not about his 15-year record or his opponent’s shortcomings.
“Frankly, do I wish I got the endorsement? Yeah. I’m not going to pretend otherwise,” Sorrell says. “But the reality is we’ve got a strategy. We’re holding to that strategy.”
In the past couple of weeks, Sorrell’s campaign appears to have picked up the pace. Last Thursday, the AG topped off a campaign tour through every county in the state with a Burlington City Hall press conference featuring former governor Howard Dean, who took a few not-so-veiled swipes at Donovan — saying, “there are some in this race that don’t understand what this job is about.”
But since the first glimmers of opposition appeared last February — when Donovan, House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville) and Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Orleans) began floating their names as possible opponents — Sorrell has been slow to recognize the peril he faces. From the very start, he failed to convince party elders to keep his ambitious opponent on the sidelines.
In May, he neglected to petition the state committee for an endorsement, giving Donovan an early, helpful talking point. By June, Sorrell had lost six labor-union endorsements to his challenger. In July, he let Donovan out-fundraise him $130,000 to $93,000. And on Saturday, he managed to lose what no other serious Democratic candidate has been denied since it was established in 2006: the party’s unofficial mark of credibility.
“I think the way things have been going, people have been generally pretty unimpressed by what Bill’s been doing or not doing to run his campaign,” says Washington County Democratic Party chairman Jack McCullough, who attended Saturday’s meeting.
While McCullough says it was Sorrell’s use of a nonunion print shop that drove state committee members to spank the AG, the incumbent could likely have explained it had he simply shown up — or made a few phone calls. Instead, he spent the morning marching in a Northeast Kingdom parade.
Sorrell campaign manager Mike Pieciak says the reason for the no-show was simple: The party didn’t notify the campaign of the meeting until Friday afternoon. Instead of yanking the candidate off the trail, Deputy Attorney General Janet Murnane and Pieciak himself showed up to lobby for their boss.
But Perkinson, the party chairman, ain’t buyin’ it. Given that the party’s list of 103 committee members, alternates and other assorted poobahs were given 10 days notice, he says, “It was kind of surprising to me that they didn’t know about the meeting.
“I don’t think this is Bill Sorrell’s fault. Bill Sorrell’s a candidate. He’s got a campaign manager who should be on top of it,” Perkinson says. “I think it was just a failure on the part of the campaign, in terms of keeping their eye on the ball.”
Sorrell takes issue with that narrative, saying, “I hit all 14 counties [last week]. If that’s phoning it in, it’s a big phone call.”
The upside to the chatter, he argues, is that, “Quite frankly, it’s possible that this just will cause more of my supporters to think this is a serious race and it’s important for them to vote.”
Sorrell’s inattention to party activists may have set the fire at the state committee, but it was his use of a nonunion print shop that fanned the flames.
In a letter he sent to Perkinson, the party’s organized-labor representative, Jeff Fannon, wrote, “Different unions have differing reasons for their positions on the Attorney General race, but on this they are united: A candidate who reflects such basic insensitivity to a major Democratic constituency does not deserve [the party’s support].”
Fannon’s letter became a topic of discussion last Friday on the liberal blog Green Mountain Daily and the focal point of the debate the next day in Montpelier.
Sorrell’s faux pas? He spent $5312 on five separate print jobs at Milton’s Villanti & Sons, which doesn’t use the union bug. His explanation? It’s a family business; that is, his family. Sorrell’s sister’s late husband, Mike Villanti, owned the joint.
“It had nothing to do with being anti-union, for heaven’s sake. I used to be a member of a union!” explains Sorrell, who worked as a mason tender during a college summer job at Mount Abraham Union High School.
Where should Sorrell have printed the pieces, which included a widely distributed postcard featuring Dean’s endorsement? The options are mighty limited.
Jericho’s First Step Print Shop, a member of the Allied Printing Trades Council Local 610, is the only union-friendly, commercial print shop in the state. And that means, come election time, plenty of Democratic business for them!
This cycle alone, according to campaign finance reports, First Step has already brought in $3909 from Gov. Peter Shumlin’s reelection campaign, $1810 from Donovan, $1684 from State Treasurer Beth Pearce, $1579 from state auditor candidate Doug Hoffer and even $201 from Hoffer’s labor-friendly Republican rival, Sen. Vince Illuzzi.
Just wait ’til October.
“All politicians know and candidates know that if you want the backing from unions, the first thing they’re going to look for is a union label,” says First Step owner Mary Martelle, who says political work “pretty much keeps us going.”
While First Step’s website says Martelle and her husband, Bob, are co-owners of the shop, Bob said in an interview that he, along with two other workers, is actually an employee — and therefore a member of the union. His wife, he said, owns the place.
Talk about friendly labor relations!
Jay Villanti, who owns the Milton print shop patronized by Sorrell, argues that politicians’ insistence upon using union printers simply drives business out of state. He says he pays his 50-odd employees competitive wages and does all his work in Vermont.
According to Bob Martelle, a “small percentage” of First Step’s work is contracted to out-of-state union shops, though he declined to specify how much.
“It’s important that we, as a state, take care of people within the state,” Villanti says. “I think, to a fault, most politicians take work out of state because it needs to be printed at a union shop or it needs to be cheaper.”
Indeed, Secretary of State Jim Condos paid Patriot Signage, a union shop in Dayton, Ky., $713 for bumper stickers and lapel stickers in May. And Pearce, the state treasurer, paid Ozone Park, N.Y.-based Innovation Printing & Promotions $1007 in June for handheld fans featuring her campaign’s logo.
“I think, as a general rule, you should try to spend as much money locally as possible — and I think with a lot of things we’re doing that,” says Pearce campaign consultant Sam Winship. “But every now and then you can’t get everything you want here, and having the union bug on our campaign materials is very important to the campaign to show our commitment to organized labor.”
A Vermont Democratic Party fundraiser last Thursday at Burlington’s Ethan Allen Homestead drew a few uninvited guests: about 100 rabble-rousing protesters calling for the impeachment of George W. Bush. Ahem, I mean the occupation of Wall Street. I mean, protesting the basing of F-35 planes at the Vermont National Guard’s Burlington air base.
The peacenik noise-haters were hoping to hassle the state’s congressional delegation, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger — all of whom support the F-35, but none of whom showed up. That left the protesters protesting, well, a bunch of politicians yet to take a public stand on the issue.
An informal survey, however, revealed a striking uniformity: They all hail from Dodge City.
“I haven’t taken a position on it,“ said House Speaker Smith. “My feeling is it’s going through the process that it’s supposed to go through.”
“It’s a tough issue,” agreed lite-gov candidate Cassandra Gekas, who was in the middle of a conversation with Smith. “I think it’s most important for me to listen.”
Pearce, whose campaign was busy distributing her New York-made fans, said, “I’m not sure that’s an issue that’s directly relevant to the treasurer’s office at this point.”
“At this point I haven’t taken a position,” said Condos, who was chatting with Hoffer.
“I’m very sympathetic,” Hoffer offered. “But I’m not part of the decision process.”
How ’bout the AG candidates? Surely they’d weigh in.
“You know, the truth is I haven’t formulated a position yet,” Sorrell said. “I’m busy these days and, quite frankly, I’m not reading newspapers, so I haven’t really focused on this issue.”
“It’s a tough one. I’m looking at one of my cousins right now,” Donovan said, pointing to the phalanx of protesters. “That’s Michael Mahoney right there. Great guy. Good friend of mine. So it’s a tough issue.”
Will Donovan take a position before the primary election?
“I would bet I’m going to be asked to.”
Are you going to?
“Most probably I will.”
You just said yes. Now you’re saying probably.
“Now I’ll say most likely,” he said. “You know, it’s like I said. I’m looking at one of my cousins right now. It’s real to me. I get it.”
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