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Hold Your Fire! 

Fair Game

Bernie Sanders

Published May 16, 2012 at 11:23 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

T.J. Donovan says it’s time for change in the Vermont attorney general’s office. After 15 years under incumbent AG Bill Sorrell, Vermont needs “new ideas, new energy, new engagement on a whole host of issues.” That’s how Donovan put it last week at a packed-house campaign kickoff at Burlington’s St. John’s Club.

His campaign slogan? “Doing more for Vermont.” More than what? The unstated implication, it would seem, is more than Sorrell.

But the Chittenden County state’s attorney insists he is not running against Bill Sorrell. He’s running for the office.


The Democratic primary for AG in August will be nothing less than a referendum on the seven-term incumbent. Most political observers agree the reason Donovan hopped into the race in the first place — and why House Speaker Shap Smith considered doing the same — is because of Sorrell’s perceived weakness as a result of a string of high-profile court losses, most recently a federal ruling that lets Vermont Yankee continue splitting atoms for another 20 years.

But in shying away from direct attacks of his opponent’s record, Donovan is attempting a high-wire act that gives voters little motivation to throw the bum out — or even see Sorrell as a bum at all.

Last Saturday, Donovan and Sorrell engaged in the campaign’s first public face-off at a regular meeting of the Vermont Democratic Party at Randolph Elementary School. Donovan was there to seek the party’s endorsement — a formality freely given to any legitimate Democrat candidate. Sorrell, who failed to make the agenda in time for endorsement consideration, was there to tell the party he’d be back for its blessing in a few weeks.

Donovan started his pitch by saying, “I respect Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who is in the room today. I don’t want this to be divisive. If it is, I will withdraw this request to be endorsed.”

The closest Donovan came to drawing an explicit contrast was when he said, “I do think we should have a debate about the office of attorney general.”

The topics T.J. would like to debate? The $500 million shortfall in the Vermont Yankee decommissioning fund, which Donovan says could saddle generations of Vermonters with the cleanup tab long after the nuke plant is retired. Also, Vermont’s prescription-drug problem — and how to be tough on crime while being “smart on crime” as well.

And Sorrell’s not doing that now?

“I’m not running against Bill Sorrell. I’m running for the office,” Donovan responds. “I have my own philosophies about the office.”

Sorrell, who hasn’t faced a serious challenger since taking office in 1997, previewed what could become his campaign message. If Saturday’s speech to state Dems was any indication, Sorrell will run on — wait for it — his record!

That’s right. The legal record that some observers see as a liability is what Sorrell plans to put forward as his best asset — the reason he deserves another two-year term.

In particular, Sorrell will continue talking about all the money his office has brought into Vermont — especially from the multimillion-dollar settlement of a tobacco lawsuit that he signed onto “four weeks to the day after taking office.” He might also mention, as he did Saturday, that the Vermont Medical Society once described him as a “giant killer, not afraid to take on powerful interests and fight for Vermonters.”

“I want to talk about my record. I want Vermonters to know what I’ve done,” Sorrell told Democrats in Randolph.

And why wouldn’t Sorrell want to talk about his record? So far, he’s the only one defining it.

But Sorrell is walking his own tightrope, trying to appeal to core Dems who will be decisive in the primary while he defends the credibility of his office as a bastion of nonpartisan law enforcement.

Exhibit A: On Saturday, Sorrell boasted to party leaders about the lawsuit his office brought against the Republican Governors Association and 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie for allegedly sharing polling data — a violation of law. And in the next breath, he said that he can’t appear to be “siding too much with one side or the other.”

“I don’t want to have my office not respected,” the AG said.

Translation: I’m not afraid to go after Republicans when they cross the legal line, but don’t expect me to make a habit of it.

Will T.J.’s nice-guy routine work?

Who knows? With the primary three months away, the race is still young, and dynamics change fast in close elections. But Donovan is a relative unknown to thousands of Vermont voters outside Chittenden County who have pulled the lever for Sorrell every two years since Bill Clinton was president.

If the normal laws of elections hold true, those voters are gonna need a reason to pull the lever for the other guy.

Audit This!

In other news from last weekend’s Democratic confab: Doug Hoffer wants another shot at State Auditor Tom Salmon, and on Saturday, state Democrats gave him their blessing to go for it.

A freelance policy analyst from Burlington, Hoffer finished seven points behind the Republican Salmon in 2010 in one of the weirdest and most-watched auditor’s races in years. Remember Salmon’s drunk-driving video — where he told the cop, “You know I’m the state auditor, right?” — which came out just days before Election Day?

And who can forget how Ed Flanagan cast aside his YMCA locker room indiscretions to make one more run for the office he once held?

Don’t count on that kind of campaign circus this year. But do count on a hard-hitting ideological debate that pits an unapologetic conservative against an apologetic liberal — the Democrat-turned-Republican son of a former Vermont governor versus a Progressive-turned-Democrat data cruncher.

On Saturday, Hoffer told state Dems in Randolph that he was disappointed to lose in 2010 but “gratified and encouraged” that he received 105,000 votes, and that “a two-term incumbent named Salmon only got 52 percent of the vote.” Hoffer said he likes his chances this year for a few reasons.

First, it’s a presidential election year, and in liberal Vermont that means President Barack Obama will help down-ticket Dems by turning out the party faithful. Second, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is up for reelection and Hoffer said the Progfather has “offered to campaign with me as often as I can manage.

“I think that could be very valuable,” Hoffer said. “Particularly in areas where Salmon is strong, where Republicans are strong, Bernie polls well ahead of anybody else.”

Third, Hoffer is counting on improved name recognition on the second go-round. And finally, he said he “learned a lot” from the 2010 race and that “this time I can work harder and smarter for sure” — a candid admission for a guy who’s better at policy than retail politics.

State Dems gave Hoffer their endorsement last weekend, 33 to 1.

State Rep. Tim Jerman of Essex Junction stood up to acknowledge the elephant, er moose, in the room: that Hoffer is seen by some Dems as having “baggage from the other party” — meaning Progressives — or as having been “too aggressive” toward some Democrats.

“That’s exactly what you want in an auditor,” declared Jerman.

Inch by Inch, Code by Code

Is the city of Burlington waging a war on gardening?

Not exactly, but the Queen City’s heavy-handed zoning ordinance has snared a pair of green-thumbed homeowners who were just trying to grow their own grub.

As reported last week on the Seven Days staff blog Blurt, Burlington homeowners Michael Rooney and Susan Dorn were ordered to take down a pair of greenhouse-style hoop houses in their front yard on South Willard Street near Champlain College. Apparently, any structure that sits on your lawn for more than 30 days requires a zoning permit.

The hoop houses were built two years ago, but it took until this past April — when the kale and Swiss chard were already knee high — for someone to complain, anonymously, to the city.

Code-enforcement director Bill Ward says his office is obligated to investigate complaints, but that busting code-breaking urban gardeners is “not at the top of our priority list.”

Rooney and Dorn haven’t decided whether they’ll seek permits for the structures — at $90 a pop — or just take them down. Rooney, for one, worries that losing an appeal could “set a precedent” that could come back to haunt other urban gardeners in Burlington.

Perhaps Mayor Miro Weinberger can ride to the rescue on this one — on his two-wheeler. It’s Way to Go week, after all. Appropriately, Weinberger was spotted early this week riding his bike down Battery Street. Two problems: He was sans helmet and his shoelace was untied.

“Guilty as charged,” Weinberger tells Fair Game. “I got my hair cut and left my helmet at the barber shop. I didn’t realize until after the shop had closed.”

Was the well-coiffed mayor trying to avoid helmet hair? “It was absent-mindedness,” he says, “not vanity.”

Stop the Presses!

The Burlington Free Press has devoted a lot of “reporting” to the big changes taking place on College Street — from its new, $2.4 million printing press to the newspaper’s impending change to a Seven Days-ish tabloid format.

Last Sunday, the Gannett-owned Freeps broke more news about its evolving business plan.

The bottom line: Say goodbye to free news online! Starting June 7, subscribers will pay about $5 more per month for home delivery, because it includes access to the online content. Online readers will get a few articles a month for free, then face a paywall. During a Free Press live chat on the paper’s website, several readers complained about having to “subsidize” the paper’s new digital platforms when all they want is the old-fashioned newsprint on their doorstep for the old-fashioned price.

Gotta love those old-school Vermonters.

Freeps associate editor Mike Killian patiently explained to readers that the free lunch is over. Costs are up, and the price of a paper has to go up, too, to reflect “what our news and advertising content are really worth.”

In making readers pay, the Freeps is bowing to an economic reality that has prompted the New York Times and countless other daily newspapers to put their “content” behind a paywall.

Luckily, there’s at least one free news source left in Vermont!

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About The Author

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage was a Seven Days staff writer from 2009-2012, and the news editor from 2012-2013.


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