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August 16, 2012

VIDEO: 7 Highlights/Lowlights From Last Night's Seven Days-Channel 17 Attorney General Debate


Oh, snap!

Democratic rivals for attorney general, incumbent Bill Sorrell and contender T.J. Donovan, threw down on their home turf last night in a feisty debate inside Burlington City Hall sponsored by Seven Days and Channel 17 Town Meeting Television.

With the August 28 primary less than two weeks away, Sorrell and Donovan are jockeying hard for pole position — or maybe pol position — in the most competitive campaign of the year.

The candidates sat close together (their elbows were practically touching) and the tension was palpable at times. Donovan, the Chittenden County State's Attorney, stayed on offense the whole night, hammering Sorrell for what he said was a lack of engagement and leadership during his 15 years as attorney general — and for accepting help from a Washington, D.C.-based super PAC. Sorrell vigorously defended his record and got in his own digs, demanding that Donovan stop "distorting" his record.

At times, both candidates shook their heads in disbelief while the other answered a question.

Here are seven highlights (and lowlights) from the evening. You decide which is which.

1. The Poll Smackdown

Asked what's the most important issue that will face the next AG, Donovan repeated his mantra that it's prescription-drug abuse, then went after Sorrell for an answer he gave to the same question during a Vermont Public Television debate last week. "When Bill Sorrell was asked by Kristin Carlson as to what's the biggest issue in Vermont, he answered, 'It depends.' This is about what's knowing [sic] out there. This is about knowing the issues facing Vermont." Sorrell shot back: "I didn't need to spend $10,000 on a North Carolina outfit to take a poll to tell me what issues are important to Vermonters." That wouldn't be a "push poll," now would it, Bill?

2. The Brain Fart

Asked to name the most significant ruling issued by the Vermont Supreme Court in the past year, Sorrell drew a blank. Donovan came up with one — the Rutland Herald case, in which the newspaper unsuccessfully sued for public records related to police misconduct in their hometown cop shop.

Later, Sorrell also blanked on the 1-800 number for his office's consumer-assistance hotline. As Rick Perry would say, "Oops."

3. The Super PAC Punch

Donovan again hit Sorrell over a $99,000 ad buy from a pro-Sorrell super PAC funded by the Democratic Attorneys General Association (which is in turn funded by big banks, big ag and big labor). The ad is running on WCAX and WPTZ 212 times between August 10 and primary day and is the first by a super PAC in Vermont.

Donovan: "Where's this $100,000 coming from? Is it coming from the corporations that fund the Democratic Attorneys General Association — big banks, big oil, big tobacco, Monsanto?"

Sorrell (doing his best impression of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver): "Is that a question? Is this a question for me? "

Donovan: "Yes. Where is the money coming from?"

Sorrell: "The short answer is, 'I don't know.' And that's good. And you know why that's good? Because then no one can question whether I'm showing favoritism in my enforcement of the laws." 

3. The F-35 Dodge

Both candidates ducked a question about whether they support basing supersonic F-35 fighter planes at the Vermont Air Guard base at Burlington International Airport. At a Democratic fundraiser three weeks ago, Sorrell said he hadn't taken a position because he was too busy these days to read the newspapers. Donovan said he would take a position before the primary, but then hedged and said he probably would. They were no more ready to answer Wednesday night. Sorrell answered that the Air Force should bring the jets here, fly them around for a week and see what the public thinks of them. Maybe then he'd decide what he thinks. Donovan seconded the test-flight idea and wouldn't answer the question, either. Talk about a stealth answer!

4. The Vaccine Question

The candidates did not duck the vaccine question — whether Vermont should eliminate the philosophical exemption to childhood immunizations as a way to combat the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases. Both said they support doing away with the philosophical exemption — in a roundabout way. Donovan: "When you come down to the philosophical issue of parents looking out for the well being of their own child, you have to respect it. Again, you have to balance it with the public health of the community. It's a difficult one. I think that the public health of the community outweighs an individual's right towards it. ...Any time you could jeopardize the public health, I think you have to err on the side of public health in the community." Sorrell: "I agree with T.J."

5. How Long You Gonna Serve, Anyway?

Donovan was asked, should he win, how long he'd commit to serving as attorney general (you know, before he runs for Congress or Senate or something). "I don't know how long I'd serve. My wife and I, we have two little kids, one's 2 and a half, and I'm already worried about how I'm going to pay for college. You don't get rich in politics, and I think the economic reality of having two kids is probably unlikely for a future political career." Sorrell was asked, should he win, how many more terms he intended to serve. "I look forward to at least one more term serving in this great position as Vermont's attorney general," he said.

6. The Dean Dis

Former governor Howard Dean, Sorrell's most prominent supporter, has criticized Donovan's laundry list of policy proposals, saying they fall outside the scope of the AG's office and suggesting that perhaps Donovan doesn't understand the job. At the debate, Donovan hit back against Dean (who was not in the room), rhetorically asking how prescription-drug abuse, elder abuse, criminal-justice reforms and GMO labeling do not relate to the attorney general's office.  "Governor Dean has been out of this state a little too long, in my opinion, if he doesn't think that's the case." Oh, no, you didn't!

7. The Tough-on-Corruption Moment

The audience member slightly botched the question, but the AG candidates both said Vermont should have a pension-forfeiture law for public employees found guilty of embezzlement and other crimes against the public. Vermont is one of only two northeastern states with no such law — the subject of a story in this week's Seven Days. Sorrell said Vermont should have such a law. "For a public employee who steals public funds, the repayment should come first and foremost out of her pension. I would support that." Donovan: "Of course. Any public employee who steals, their pension should be forfeited."


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