Attorney general's race too close to call
By Peter Hirschfeld
and DAVID TAUBE
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | August 29,2012
Attorney General Bill Sorrell, right, greets Henry Swan at the polls on Tuesday in Burlington.
BURLINGTON – Fifteen years after assuming statewide office Attorney General Bill Sorrell on Tuesday faced the first election-night suspense of his political career.
As of 10:30 p.m., what was by far the most closely watched race of this summer primary season was still too close to call.
Though Sorrell clung to a 582-vote lead with 92 percent of precincts reporting, challenger TJ Donovan said he would not be conceding the race Tuesday night. Candidates are by law allowed to demand a recount if the winning margin is less than 2 percentage points.
“Tonight we're just a few votes away from making history,” he said standing next to his wife in a crowded Hilton Burlington conference room.
Donovan said polls, one of which showed him last week losing by a 20-point margin, didn't county loyalty, passion, or intensity, factors that got the campaign that close.
Supporters of Sorrell and challenger TJ Donovan fixed their gaze on projection screens updating vote tallies at the candidates' respective election-night parties. At a Hilton nearby the Burlington, a packed crowd of about 125 roared whenever media outlets posted winning returns for Donovan. A few doors down, at the Sorrell gathering in the Courtyard Marriott, a quieter group of about half that size munched on complementary appetizers and nursed bottles of beer.
Sorrell d yet to make an appearance at his event by press time.
Turnout was shaping up to be about 10 percent of registered voters – nearly 40,000 had voted with 238 of 258 precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press – about what Secretary of State Jim Condos had predicted. Sorrell had 20,213 votes to Donovan's 19,631.
Since being appointed to the post by then-Gov. Howard Dean in 1997, Sorrell has won less than 60 percent of the popular vote only twice, and has never trailed his closest competitor by fewer than 25 points.
But Sorrell had also never faced a name-brand competitor. And in the estimation of one longtime political strategist, his campaign muscles had “completely atrophied.”
Donovan showed off a formidable ground game early in the campaign, locking up endorsements from organized labor, law-enforcement, and the mayors of some of the state's largest cities. He also showed crossover appeal, with endorsements from Republican Sens. Peg Flory and Kevin Mullin, both of Rutland.
In the days leading up to the election, Donovan also won nods from several newspapers, including the Burlington Free Press and Valley News.
Outside the Montpelier poling station Tuesday afternoon, Marilyn Mode said she thinks Sorrell is a “decent fellow,” but that she voted for Donovan because “it's time for some fresh ideas.”
She said his efforts to divert drug addicts and people with mental health issues from the criminal justice system in Chittenden County show his “energy and foresight.” “TJ Donovan I think brings some fresh ideas that our state could really benefit from,” Mode said.
Montpelier voter Phil Keller, meanwhile, said he cast his vote for Sorrell. He said his vote wasn't so much an endorsement of Sorrell as it was a condemnation of Donovan, who earlier this month told the Vermont Democratic Party to cancel a get-out-the-vote event planned for primary day.
Donovan said the election was going to be about which campaign could more effectively target supporters and convince them to vote, and he wanted to compete with the Sorrell campaign “one-on-one,” free from party intervention.
“I personally find that so offensive, that he would put his own political ambition over greater participation in the Democratic process,” Keller said. “I don't feel like I could ever trust his political judgment, or his willingness to put the interests of people over his own.”
In a two-person race where there weren't many substantive differences on key policy issues, campaign tactics got outsized attention from both the media and the candidates themselves.
The Sorrell campaign complained about what it said was an over-aggressive absentee ballot strategy from the Donovan camp. A small number of voters and town clerks said Donovan volunteers had erroneously requested absentee ballots on their behalf; no formal complaints were ever filed.
Donovan, meanwhile, excoriated Sorrell refusing to renounce the super PAC that launched a nearly $200,000 mass-media campaign on his behalf. The PAC, called the Committee for Justice and Fairness, is reportedly funded by the Democratic Association of Attorneys General, though the group exploited a campaign-finance loophole that will allow it to avoid disclosing its contributors until October.
On the issues, Donovan, 38, sought to bolster his image as an activist prosecutor who will would enact policy changes customarily left to decision makers in the legislative and executive branches.
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, spotlighted the highlights of a 15-year tenure that he said exemplified his ability to execute the core functions of the office.