TJ Donovan hopes to unseat AG Sorrell
BRATTLEBORO - TJ Donovan says he got his sense of justice from his father.
The second-term Chittenden County state attorney said his dad was a lawyer that worked as a solo practitioner and made his living by sticking up for individuals that lacked a level playing field.
"He took whoever came in off the street and didn't make a lot of money, but he was a great guy," he said of his father, Thomas. "He always helped the little guy."
That commitment to service, the younger Donovan said, is the driving force behind his efforts to earn the Democratic nomination for Vermont Attorney General. He announced his candidacy last month and began a grass-roots campaign aimed at unseating incumbent William Sorrell, who has held the position since 1997.
Donovan is quick to mention that he has no personal problem with the current attorney general.
"I like Bill. I'm not running against Bill. I'm running for the office," he said at the Reformer offices. "I know a primary challenge in Vermont is somewhat unusual but this is why we have primaries and he's never had a challenge and I think we can do things differently. I think I have a different philosophy about the office than Bill."
Donovan said people are hearing about the attorney general's office for the first time in a long time.
"Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, I don't know. But it's an incredibly important job in the state and it can be a major policymaker in the state," he said. "I think it can change the lives of a lot of people in this state."
The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon was the first topic Donovan touched on when he sat down with the Reformer last week. He said the state's AG needs to talk about the decommissioning fund.
"Whether you're for nuclear power or against it, that decommisioning fund affects every Vermonter in this state. ... My understanding is that the decommissioning fund is about $500 million short," he said. "I am not a nuclear power expert and I don't pretend to be one but I know this - the oldest plant in the world is 44 years old. (Yankee) just turned 40. This thing is not going to last another 20 years.
"It's going to shut down whether it's through legal action or the result of a business decision by the plant's owners," he continued. "So we have to protect the Vermont taxpayer on that and make sure that Entergy Louisiana fully funds the decommissioning fund because Vermonters shouldn't be liable for that."
The candidate, whose wife Jessica McCloud is a mental health counselor, said he would also like more attention placed on issues of public safety and the prison system, which he said often go hand in hand. He said one of the state's biggest safety problems is the abuse of drugs, particularly prescription drugs, and mentioned that he has heard the concern from people all over Vermont, including Brattleboro, Bennington, Rutland and St. Albans.
Nearly every burglary and car break-in is the result of a prescription drug problem, he said.
"We have 40 people who die every year of prescription drug overdoses in the state," said Donovan, the father of a 2-year-old son named Jack. "That's a travesty. That should not be happening. It's preventable.
"I support passage of a Good Samaritan Law, which basically says, 'I don't care where you get the drugs from. If you're in crisis and you need help, call 911, go to the ER. We're going to help you, we're going to get you sober. We're going to save your life,'" he went on to say, adding that bridges need to be built between the government and the medical community. "These guys are part of the solution. They're not part of the problem."
Donovan also said the state locks up too many people who don't belong behind bars. He said criminals such as murderers, rapists and wife-beaters deserve to go to prison but that individuals with an addiction to drugs needs help, not incarceration. He said the system has failed people that are sent to prison four or five different times.
The candidate spoke of a hypothetical 27-year-old woman that has a pill problem and was busted for retail theft for a fourth time.
"We've got to get her sober and give her the tools to be a good parent. ... When you look at the mission statement of the Department of Corrections, it's to correct people's behavior," he said, mentioning that his stance makes financial sense.
He said the cost of putting someone in jail for a day is $180 while giving someone a day of treatment runs about $95.
"Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, 'I want to be a drug addict,'" he said.
Donovan said he also wants to be a partner in Gov. Peter Shumlin's war on recidivism - when former convicts repeat crimes that send them to prison - which he views as a battle against poverty, mental illness and substance abuse.
His emphasis on crime prevention earned him an important endorsement from the Vermont Sheriffs' Association.
"Many of the sheriffs have worked with him as a prosecutor in Chittenden County. We found him to be very energetic and enthusiastic," said Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark, the association's incoming president. "He's proven that he is trying to find solutions before there are problems."
Clark also said many of Vermont's 14 sheriffs feel it is time for change in the Office of Attorney General.
Donovan picked up another key endorsement from Rutland Mayor Chris Louras.
Donovan said he had five sisters growing up in a hard-working family from Burlington. According to his official campaign website, he earned a bachelor's degree from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., before receiving his law degree from Suffolk University Law School in Boston.
After getting his Juris Doctor, he started his career as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia before serving as deputy state's attorney, which he now leads.
He was elected as Chittenden County state's attorney in 2006.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.
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