TJ, We Hardly Knew Ye

Return with me now to the halcyon days of 2012, when Peter Shumlin was still popular and a fresh-faced young prosecutor from up Burlington way took on the seemingly impossible task of challenging Vermont’s Eternal General Bill Sorrell in the Democratic primary. Sorrell had held the office of attorney general since 1997 and had been repeatedly re-elected, as is our general custom with statewide officeholders other than governor. Many believed that by 2012, ol’ Billy was long past his sell-by date. Others thought he wasn’t particularly qualified in the first place, but those people are obvious malcontents. (Like, for instance, the late Peter Freyne.)

Ultimately, thanks to a last-ditch infusion of cash on Sorrell’s behalf from the Democratic Attorneys General Association, TJ Donovan’s bid to unseat the incumbent came up just a little bit short. Sorrell won the primary by a puny 714 votes out of more than 41,000 cast.

But Donovan was widely hailed for his chutzpah and, more to the point, for very nearly pulling it off.

So let me ask you this. Whatever happened to that brave, headstrong young man with a limitless political future?

I mean, there’s A Guy named TJ Donovan around. In fact, he became AG in the 2016 election, after Sorrell retired. He looks a lot like the ambitious young pol of 2012, but as time goes by, he’s acting more and more like his predecessor.

Sorrell’s tenure in office was marked by a few consistent features. He was very big on joining multi-state lawsuits and claiming responsibility for resultant cash settlements. Most notably, he bogarted credit for the renowned multi-state suit against the tobacco industry that continues to bring money into state coffers. (Truth: He didn’t become AG until the suit had been underway for years. For a bit of fun about this and the mysterious pro-Billy edits of his Wikipedia page by someone from South Burlington, see my 2012 post at Green Mountain Daily.)

While Sorrell was all for joining other states in taking on big corporations and the like, he was much more timid within Vermont’s borders, acting very much like a protector of institutions — and the police. He rarely, if ever, brought charges against cops involved in violent incidents. He was no fan of government transparency.

Donovan has followed in Sorrell’s footsteps re: corporate malfeasance and has, to his credit, been part of Democratic AGs’ ongoing legal battles against Trump administration excesses. Although he’s usually a signer-on rather than an initiator.

Unfortunately, he also follows in Sorrell’s footsteps in his distaste for confrontation with in-state powers and principalities. I don’t think he’s ever brought charges against a police officer. He made an unsatisfying mess of the Kiah Morris case, and then attempted a make-good by bringing a marginal weapons charge against Max Misch, perpetrator of some of the anti-Morris harassment.

Donovan also ordered the creation of a Bias Incident Reporting System, designed to fill the gaps where incidents of bias may not rise to the criminal level. (Maybe they all should be, but not in Donovan’s world.) But apparently he didn’t learn much from l’affaire Morris, because the “system” turned out to be, well, kinda weaksauce. And in a move straight from the Only A White Person Could Possibly Do This playbook, his office crafted the system without any input from, you know, people of color.

Donovan fessed up, telling VPR that he should have known better and promising to “embrace the criticism and learn from it,” and adding that “We have to be willing to listen and self-reflect.”

What you mean “we,” Kemosabe? Perhaps the almost entirely lily-white AGO staff?

I mean, Christ on a bicycle, I’d hope that a Democratic law enforcement official who formerly served Vermont’s most racially diverse county would have learned these lessons long ago.

Now we come to Donovan’s latest dick move: a rule for inspection of government documents that forbids any kind of photography or reproduction “unless the requester is willing to pay applicable charges.” Now, state agencies are allowed to recoup staff costs for reproducing documents, and that’s fine if the fees are indeed reasonable (which is a big hairy assumption), but Donovan’s rule requires those who use their own smartphones to snap pictures of documents to pay the same fees when state employees don’t actually do any work!

It’s ridiculous. And probably vulnerable to a court challenge, should any civic-minded attorney or organization go to the trouble and expense of suing the AGO. (VTDigger, which reported on this absurdity, is appealing the AGO to reconsider, which ha.)

Correction: It’s not ridiculous. It’s bullshit. And downright Sorrellian.

Maybe TJ should have fumigated the AGO offices and burned the furniture before he took office. I think he’s caught something.

The final nail in the coffin of 2012 Donovan is the apparent loss of self-confidence. That guy risked his political future by challenging an entrenched incumbent. In the long run, that gamble paid off big time. Donovan is clearly the most upwardly mobile Democrat in the state right now. He’d be extremely hard to beat in, say, next year’s gubernatorial primary. At the beginning of the summer, Donovan made it clear he was actively considering a run.

But now, the leaves are falling and first frost has come and gone, and Donovan is… still considering?

The longer this goes on, the more I think he’s not gonna do it. And to be honest, I don’t know why.

I’m not saying he’d be my first choice, but he would be a formidable opponent for Phil Scott. And it’s about time that somebody from the Dems’ A-Team actually stepped up to the plate. We’ve seen Scott, and Jim Douglas before him, consistently swat away challenges from B-, C- and D-listers while the Dems’ leading contenders sat back and waited for an opportune moment. (For many, that moment never came.)

Nothing against the Sue Minters and Scudder Parkers of the world. They are all good folks who did their best. But the party’s top talent has avoided taking on a fight they might actually lose.

If Donovan has lost his edge, or has a bad case of Hamlet Syndrome, it’s a shame. Vermont already has an oversupply of cautious Democrats.


1 thought on “TJ, We Hardly Knew Ye

  1. Kathryn Trudell

    Is Sorrellian similar to Orwellian? Methinks t’is. In fact, much of Vermont’s governmental structure is these days. As someone else said earlier, we are looking more and more like an example of a failed socialist State.


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