Published October 27, 2016
T.J. Donovan, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, has served with distinction as state’s attorney in Chittenden County for 10 years, and he is well prepared to become the state’s No. 1 lawyer.
The incumbent attorney general, William Sorrell, has held office for so long it’s hard to remember when the post was a highly coveted, competitive political post. After Sorrell’s 19 year-tenure,
Donovan’s election will bring new ideas and welcome energy to the position.
Four years ago, Donovan gave an indication of his intentions, challenging Sorrell in the Democratic primary and nearly winning. It was a brash move by a young upstart against an entrenched old-timer. Sorrell, meanwhile, has had a rocky go of it lately, with news stories revealing embarrassing connections between political contributions and participants in state legal cases. This year, Sorrell, 69 years old, decided it was time to go.
Donovan has an impressive record in Chittenden County, pioneering innovative programs in criminal justice that have served as models for the state. He established a “rapid intervention” program to divert offenders away from the criminal justice system and toward drug treatment, and he is a supporter of expanded drug treatment options. He aspires to an “expansive role” for the attorney general’s office, getting at the root of problems that, left unattended, end up in the criminal justice system. These include issues, not just of drugs, but of domestic violence, poverty, poor housing and health care.
He describes himself as a “go-slow guy” on the issue of marijuana legalization, saying the state still has much to learn from the experience of Colorado and other states where pot is legal. California voters may legalize recreational use this November, transforming the marijuana question, and Donovan’s prudent approach is well advised. Meanwhile, he notes that in Chittenden County, he does not prosecute private recreational marijuana use.
Donovan supports the return of prison inmates now housed in private out-of-state prisons. It is Vermont’s responsibility to take care of its own offenders, he says.
Donovan is running against Republican Deb Bucknam who has practiced law privately in St. Johnsbury for many years. She has no previous political experience and acknowledges that one reason she is running is that someone had to do it — no other more prominent or experienced Republican had been willing to do so.
Bucknam’s view of state government differs from that of Donovan. One of her main concerns is that state government is often not responsive to the people, acts arbitrarily and is not interested in solving problems. She acknowledges that there is contradiction between her view that government is an adversary and her role as the top attorney representing the state.
One of the problems she believes the state must address is the opioid epidemic. She favors expanded treatment options for addicts and would create a task force to address the problem. She is not willing to endorse Donovan’s aggressive measures, such as his rapid intervention program, saying she would want to “talk to the experts.” She also defers on the issue of private prisons, saying she would want to analyze whether the state could afford to return its inmates to Vermont.
These views indicate why Bucknam is not ready to be attorney general. Rather than talking to the experts, the attorney general is supposed to be the expert. Donovan has developed expertise, knowledge and experience on the breadth of challenging issues surrounding drug abuse, poverty and criminal justice. He has evidenced a keen ambition to transform the attorney general’s office into an agent of change.
The unsuccessful challenge he mounted against Sorrell four years ago may have tempered him in a positive way, and now he appears to be ready to become attorney general. Bucknam has done well to put him to the test by representing another point of view, but she has failed one of the principal moral tests facing Republican candidates this year: She has refused to disavow Donald Trump.
Her role in the race has cast into sharp relief Donovan’s experience and knowledge. This is the year for T.J. Donovan to be elected attorney general.