Wednesday October 31, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell is hearing criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.

Republican challenger Jack McMullen contends the longtime Democratic incumbent is pursuing an activist agenda with a "partisan slant."

Progressive candidate Ed Stanak, on the other hand, is demanding more activism from Vermont's chief law-enforcement officer.

Sorrell, though, says his record speaks for itself.

"I've got over 15 years of experience doing the job of attorney general," he said.

Sorrell is pursuing his eighth full term, facing McMullen, Stanak and Liberty Union candidate Rosemarie Jackowski in the Nov. 6 general election. Sorrell also served a partial term as attorney general after being appointed to the office in May 1997 by then-Gov. Howard Dean.

However, he almost didn't make it on the general election ballot this year: Sorrell narrowly defeated Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan in the Aug. 28 Democratic primary, winning 21,124 votes to Donovan's 20,410.

Donovan voiced his support for Sorrell after the primary, and the incumbent says he believes the party is no longer divided.

"I have a strong sense that the Democrats have united behind me," he said. "I have no indication otherwise."

Sorrell, a Montpelier resident who previously served as Chittenden County state's attorney and Vermont's secretary of administration, has been busy making a final campaign push.

His priorities include allocating additional resources for child pornography investigations and for consumer protection programs. Sorrell offers a resume that includes experience with a wide variety of cases.

"My office has been very successful in the criminal justice arena but also very aggressive in environmental protection and consumer protection," Sorrell said.

He also is touting the fact that he is the only candidate remaining in the attorney general's race with any experience in criminal law.

In fact, Sorrell is the only candidate who is licensed to practice law in Vermont. The state does not require that its attorney general be a practicing attorney here.

McMullen said he is a member of the bar in New York, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. He said he is in the process of applying for admittance to the Vermont bar.

He also has taught at Harvard Law School and currently serves as a legal consultant to technology companies. While acknowledging a "different background" than Sorrell's, the Burlington resident doesn't see that as a handicap to his campaign.

Instead, McMullen believes his "business-oriented" background would allow him to use the attorney general's resources more wisely: He is calling for a resource-allocation audit of the office.

McMullen also pledges to "avoid wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on appeals of poorly justified legal positions," saying he would work to head off litigation when possible.

"Litigation is expensive, time-consuming, unpredictable," he said.

He cites as a key example the state's Vermont Yankee appeal.

State lawmakers had voted to forbid the Vermont Public Service Board from issuing a certificate for the Vernon power plant's continued operation, but a federal judge ruled that the state had strayed too far into U.S.government jurisdiction.

Sorrell took his case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. He says he's "aggressively defending" Vermont law and will take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

But McMullen says it's time for the state to "cut our losses and negotiate the best deal we can" with Vermont Yankee owner Entergy.

"My honest assessment, shared by many, is that this case is not going to do very well on appeal," he said.

McMullen wants to devote more resources to crime prosecution, specifically increasing numbers of drug-related crimes.

"This is job one," he said. "People expect to be safe in their homes and communities."

McMullen advocates for the formation of a statewide task force to develop uniform standards for handling such cases. He also favors sending "casual," nonviolent drug users straight to treatment rather than to jail.

Such reforms are needed, McMullen said, because Sorrell has been "largely absent" when it comes to criminal prosecution.

Sorrell says that is a mischaracterization of his office, pointing out that he has two assistant attorneys general working full-time on drug cases. McMullen "just has a profound misunderstanding of what it is we do," Sorrell said.

Drugs also are a campaign issue for Progressive candidate Ed Stanak. The Barre resident wants to legalize marijuana, then regulate and tax it like alcohol.

"The war on drugs, I think, has failed," Stanak said.

Stanak said he approaches the attorney general's office from an "activist" perspective. He is a longtime opponent of the Vermont Yankee plant, and he believes corporate influence has corrupted democracy through campaign spending.

He also is concerned about protecting privacy, saying both corporations and government have infringed on the rights of individuals by collecting and using too much information.

Stanak never has been an attorney; he participated in the Vermont Supreme Court's "reading law" program but never took the bar exam, though he has taught legal research.

He recently retired as the state's District 5 coordinator for Act 250, a job he held for 31 years.

"I know state government quite well, and I would hit the ground running," he said.

Rounding out the attorney general ballot is Jackowski, a Bennington resident who has sought the office before. She also is not an attorney but has spent time in courtrooms through an organization she founded, Justice for Children.

"I consider that to be an advantage," Jackowski said. "(The attorney general) is largely an administrative position, and I think having someone who's not a member of the bar will bring a new focus."

She is interested in a wide variety of issues including investigation of abuse of the elderly and disabled.

Jackowski also is calling for a moratorium on the use of police stun guns; elimination of the state's Public Service Board; legalization of hemp cultivation and small amounts of marijuana; and the shutdown of Vermont Yankee.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.