The Democratic candidates for Attorney General squared off in Burlington Wednesday night as the primary looms.
The discussion covered a lot of ground, from Burlington protests to national campaign finance reform. The debate also served as one of the last chances for incumbent Bill Sorrell and challenger T.J. Donovan to draw distinctions between their campaigns.
Shortly after five o'clock Wednesday, the candidates sat down in Burlington's City Hall for the debate sponsored by Seven Days and Ch. 17. Donovan and Sorrell fielded questions from media panelists -- including WCAX's Kristin Carlson -- the audience, and each other.
The candidates expressed similar positions on the handling of Burlington protests, mandating of vaccines, and said the attorney general should play a role in guiding policy - though they drew distinctions as to when such a stance is appropriate.
One of the most significant differences emerged during a discussion of genetically modified food labeling and avoiding national lawsuits.
Donovan contends that with more guidance from the attorney general's office, state laws would be less likely to be struck down in federal courts. He also said that, when challenged in a federal court of appeal, he would seek outside help from constitutional law experts. "You can never prevent a lawsuit, but you can prevent a good lawsuit," he said.
Sorrell says he stands by the guidance he has offered and his record at trial. Sure in 15 years we've paid out a little over five million (dollars) for two losses before the same court that handed down the Citizens's United case," he said, "but I brought 40 million dollars into the state last year, and 40 millions dollars the year before that, and 40 million dollars the year before that."
Both Sorrell and Donovan had pledged to keep campaigns positive, but the back and forth grew chippy as the debate progressed. "Please do not distort what I say in the campaign," Sorrell said to Donovan after the two couldn't agree about the wording of a radio-interview response Sorrell regarding a question about prisons.
Donovan frequently attacked Sorrell for not engaging the public or officials outside of the office and in informal settings; Sorrell chastised Donovan multiple times for failing to directly address the question as posed.
During Wednesday's debate, the sparring continued over out-of-state funding in the race. A national political action committee composed of fellow attorney generals has produced Pro-Sorrell television ads. Donovan says while not illegal Sorrell's refusal to condemn the ads goes against the Vermont tradition. Sorrell countered that while he supports campaign finance reform he sees no reason why he should shun the group's support.
Following a recent disclosure deadline, both sides released financial data. Donovan has out-raised and out-spent Sorrell but both candidates have about the same amount left in the bank.
Incumbent Bill Sorrell has raised about $115,000 and spent about half of it. Donovan has raised nearly $167,000 during his campaign. Of that, he has spent $112,000 leaving $54,000 remaining in his political war chest.
The debate will be temporarily settled August 28th when one emerges victorious from the Democratic primary. But, issues will emerge again when campaigns re-ignite ahead of the general election this November.
Three more debates remain, with the last on the 25th, three days before the primary on the 28th.
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