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August 08, 2012

7 Takeaways From Tuesday's Attorney General Debate in Shelburne

DSC03221Neither candidate made any gaffes.

But Democrats T.J. Donovan and Bill Sorrell did face plenty of tough questions from a standing-room-only crowd in Shelburne last night at the third of nine debates before the August 28 primary for attorney general.

Seated on metal folding chairs on stage at Shelburne Town Hall, Sorrell defended his 15-year record as AG while Donovan, the Chittenden County State's Attorney, made the case for change.

What did the audience learn about the candidates in 90 minutes? Quite a bit actually.

Here are seven takeaways from the debate. Click here a list of upcoming AG debates — including the Seven Days/Channel 17 matchup at Burlington City Hall next Wednesday, August 15.

1.Biography will not decide the race

Both were born and raised in Burlington. Both had a lot of sisters (Donovan has five, Sorrell has four) and no brothers. Their families are deeply connected. But Sorrell did drop one family anecdote during his opening statement that elicited a few "aah"s from the crowd and might endear him to some voters in Shelburne. His great-grandfather was apparently the head caretaker on Shelburne Farms — and has a signed note of appreciation from the estate's patriarch, William Seward Webb, that now hangs on Sorrell's wall.

DSC032492. Sorrell's win-loss record matters — especially when it comes to money

Donovan thinks he has a winning issue with the hefty attorneys' fees Vermont has to pay for big cases that Sorrell's office has lost — most recently $2.2 million for a lost data-mining case. Donovan told the crowd he would bring in outside experts to argue cases before federal courts. Sorrell responded that experts cost a lot of money — $600,000 to $800,000 was the "cut rate" one DC law firm quoted him for the data-mining case. Which created the perfect opening for Donovan: "When we pay out [$2.2 million] in legal fees when we lose, spend the $600,000 to $800,000 up front and get the experts and let's win." Which created the perfect opening for Sorrell's by now well-worn stat that his office has brought in $120 million to the state in the past three years, versus $5.5 million paid out over his entire 15-year tenure. "We have been a revenue generator for the state," Sorrell said. "No apologies."

3. Neither seems eager to make compost-gate a criminal case

Audience member "Sylvia" asked the candidates what the attorney general's office is doing — or could do — about the widening problem of compost contaminated with illegal, veggie-killing herbicides. The response amounted to "not much." Sorrell said agriculture officials are tracing the source of the contamination. As for pursuing criminal charges, Sorrell said, "Ultimately the question will be do we have the proof leading to a single source that we can bring into a court action and meet our burden of proof." Donovan's response: "We have to investigate it and do everything we can to protect Vermonters."

DSC032544. Both support a right-to-die law for Vermont

From the front row, Dick Walters, a Shelburne retiree and the state's best-known advocate for an Oregon-style right-to-die law, asked the candidates whether they backed a law allowing terminally-ill Vermonters to end their own lives. Both said they did, though neither seemed to think the AG could do much about it. Sorrell predicted the country would see civil rights litigation suing for the right to die — in 15 years or so.

5. Donovan doesn't think he's too ambitious

Donovan said he's heard the chatter: Some people think he's too ambitious. Debate moderator Cheryl Hanna of Vermont Law School asked Donovan, "Where do you see yourself heading if elected as AG?" Perhaps misunderstanding the question, Donovan started into an answer about how he and his wife "love Vermont and want to raise our boys in Vermont," before Hanna interrupted. "I think the question was, do you see this office as a stepping stone to higher office?" "I don't think so," Donovan responded. "I'm ambitious to help people."

6. Both support GMO food labeling. But neither can promise Monsanto wouldn't sue the pants off Vermont if we mandated it

"Martha from Charlotte" asked the candidates what they thought about GMO labeling of foods — and about threats from agri-giant Monsanto that it would sue Vermont should the legislature pass a law requiring it. Donovan: "I support GMO labeling. Let's not get threatened by a big corporation when we're talking about our kids. Let's have engagement with the legislature, let's do the scrutiny, let's ask the tough questions. You can never prevent a lawsuit, but you can prevent a good lawsuit." Sorrell: "I support GMO labeling. What I want to see and what would be legal for the state to mandate can be two different things. There is big-time risk if you have GMO labeling that we could get sued and lose a bunch money in attorneys' fees."

7. Neither wants to touch the issue of gun laws issue with a 10-foot musket 

One audience member asked, "Can Vermont ban purchase of automatic weapons for personal use?" Donovan: "I support responsible gun ownership but not reckless acts of violence. Vermont has a proud tradition of people who hunt and use guns and use them responsibly." "Do they hunt with semi-automatic weapons?" Hanna asked. "Would you move to ban those in particular?" Donovan: "I would not in this state." Sorrell, seemingly more versed in gun law, explained: "Automatic weapons are already illegal under federal law. ...Vermonters are by and large very law abiding folks. I don't see any need for a dramatic change in Vermont firearms law right now."

Photo credit: Andy Bromage

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