At campaign launch, Sorrell defends his record
by Taylor Dobbs | May 30, 2012 vtdigger.org Attorney General Bill Sorrell kicked off his re-election campaign on Thursday in front of a crowd of supporters at the Statehouse. The 15-year incumbent, who faces a primary challenge from fellow Democrat TJ Donovan, defended his record and emphasized his achievements.
Rep. Rebecca Ellis, D-Waterbury, one of Sorrell’s former employees, introduced the attorney general. “The office, under Bill Sorrell’s guidance, evaluates cases free of partisanship or favoritism,” she said. “The result is litigation that is fair and even-handed and a record that all Vermonters can be proud of.”
Sorrell made no apologies for a string of losses in high-profile cases. Instead, at several times during his campaign launch, he pointed to his willingness to take on tobacco corporations almost immediately after he was sworn into office in 1997 as evidence of his success.
“Four weeks to the day after taking the oath of office, I sued Big Tobacco,” he said. “As a result of that suit, Vermont has received over $300 million, and unless Americans stop their addiction to cigarettes and thereby conquer what remains the greatest avoidable public health problem confronting this state and this nation, Vermont will continue to receive at least $25 million a year, every year, forever from the settlement of that one lawsuit.”
Sorrell’s critics have suggested he jumped on the bandwagon on a suit already in the works, but he denies the claim, calling that charge “revisionist history.”
Though he said he looked forward to a “positive, issues-oriented campaign,” Sorrell seemed to suggest that his opponent, Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan, isn’t ready for the legal big leagues.
“The office impacts Vermonters in many, many, many different ways and the Chittenden County state’s attorney’s job is an important position – as I said, I’ve held it twice – this is a much bigger job and I have the record in this job that I’m proud of,” Sorrell said.
As for his recent losses, Sorrell said it’s the price the state pays for a Legislature that tests legal limits.
“We had meetings private and public where we expressed concerns that the Legislature was pushing the envelope and that we might well be sued,” Sorrell said of his loss in the U.S. Supreme Court defending Vermont’s strictest-in-the-nation campaign finance legislation.
That loss on top of recent defeats in suits against Entergy and the pharmaceuticals industry have been costly. The campaign finance lawsuit cost the state $1.5 million and the pharmaceuticals suit was a $1.8 million loss.
In answer to questions about his effectiveness as the state’s chief law enforcement official, Sorrell refers again to the Big Tobacco lawsuit and the money it brings in.
Sorrell preferred to talk about a victory in which he successfully defended the state’s strict regulation on vehicle emissions.
“I’ve been called a two-fisted attorney general, and there’s a reason for that,” Sorrell said. “I have never backed away from aggressively but fairly enforcing our laws, even when confronting wealthy and powerful opponents.”
Looking forward, Sorrell doesn’t plan on letting his losses slow him down.
“Zealous and impartial enforcement of our campaign finance laws will remain a priority,” he said, “and this two-fisted attorney general will fight, fight, fight to uphold Vermont’s laws giving Vermonters a real say as to the future of Entergy’s operations in this state.”
Campaign finance, Vermont Yankee and Big Tobacco are big issues. But the biggest facing Vermont right now? The Internet, according to Sorrell. The attorney general said Facebook and other mediums have opened the door for criminals to exploit consumers who aren’t careful for their information.
“I think that issues involving the World Wide Web, the Internet, social media, that all of the opportunities it offers us in commerce, in communication and such, that’s wonderful but there’s a downside to this and thieves, scam artists, cyber-stalkers, those who prey on people young and old are taking advantage of the web – of the Internet – to go about their business, and so I think we must do a lot more to educate Vermonters not to fall prey to the scams,” Sorrell said.
Problems stemming from Facebook, Twitter and other social media can especially impact young Vermonters, and Sorrell said he started an outreach effort Tuesday night to help the problem. Sorrell said he spoke with parents, teachers and students at Essex High School about the dangers of the Internet and how to use it safely.
“We’ve got to educate more particularly young Vermonters using the social media to responsibly use the social media, protect their privacy, respond when cyberbullying takes place,” he said. “So I think there are a lot of serious problems facing Vermont, but trying to stay abreast of new technology and to help Vermonters use it responsibly and effectively but don’t be victimized by it, I think that’s a huge challenge for us going forward.”
Sorrell’s opponent Donovan has put prescription drug abuse in his sights as public enemy number one, an issue Sorrell barely skimmed on in his campaign launch. Donovan’s early endorsements from the Vermont Sheriffs Association and the Vermont Troopers Association sent a strong message from law enforcement, and Sorrell said he isn’t sure why he didn’t get those endorsements.
Sorrell went on to talk about his office’s duty to prosecute wrongdoing by law enforcement officials, seeming to cite that as a reason he might not have gotten the endorsement.
“Well, you’d have to ask them, but quite frankly, I mean, we review criminal conduct on the part of law enforcement, we take that seriously. I said there’s not double standard. There’s no prosecutor in Vermont history who has prosecuted more law enforcement than I,” Sorrell said.
When a reporter asked if he was implying that his office’s prosecution of law enforcement was the reason his opponent got the endorsements, Sorrell stumbled.
“No, I don’t — I don’t know why they did that,” he said, “but to the extent that there’s some thought that the attorney general is always on the side of law enforcement as the state’s chief law enforcement officer is not the case. And in order for even-handed justice, and the kind of justice that Vermonters expect, when we see violations of the law, we’re expected to investigate them thoroughly and to take action if appropriate and I have done that.”
Which candidate’s message resonates more with Vermont Democrats remains to be seen, but polls conducted before Sorrell’s launch gave him a firm lead over Donovan.
“I look forward to debate with my opponent, to comparing our records and to compare our priorities for the future,” Sorrell said. “I thank the many thousands of Vermont voters who in so many past elections have placed their trust in me as the state’s chief law enforcement officer.”