Shakespearean Outlines

First, let me admit I was wrong.  Last week I predicted that incumbent Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell would defeat challenger TJ Donovan by five percentage points in the Democratic primary.  Actually, Mr. Sorrell won by fewer than two points.  I was right about Mr. Donovan winning the city of Burlington (home to both men) and Chittenden County, and Mr. Sorrell’s strength in the rest of the state carried him to slim victory.

Forgive me, also, for doting on this particular race, but I see Shakespearean outlines.  The Leddy-Donovan and Hartigan-Sorrell clans were rebels together 50 years ago when Republicans ran just about everything in the Green Mountains.  Then after 20 years in the trenches, just as the Dems – the twin clans leading the way – had become real players, that darn Bernie Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington by a scant 10 votes and the city was in the hands of the Progressive Party for the next 30 years. (If you want to drive an old-line Burlington Democrat crazy, say something nice about the Progs.)  The Prog reign ended in March, with the election of Democrat Miro Weinberger, but in the heady moment of victory, the young prince of the Leddy-Donovans decided to turn his sword against the aging chieftain of the Hartigan-Sorrells, with sundered friendships and hard feelings all around.

The campaign began in civility and ended in acrimony, with Mr. Donovan burying the needle on the nasty meter in the last few weeks.  Out-organized and clutching fewer endorsements, Mr. Sorrell’s victory was mostly delivered by $184,000 in Super PAC contributions and the unabashed support of former Governor Howard Dean.

When (most of) the votes were counted, Mr. Sorrell led by 600 ballots.  Now he turned bitter, telling his victory celebration, “In a fight like this, you find out who your friends are.”  I guess all will not be forgiven any time soon.

Mr. Donovan conceded the next day, declining to call for a recount that was his right to demand.  That was both gracious and strategic.  Relatively young (38 to Mr. Sorrell’s 65), Mr. Donovan ran a better campaign and would have won, absent Super PAC dollars.  On the statewide stage, an up-and-coming young man can afford one major defeat; this was Mr. Donovan’s.  It’s win or bust from here on out.  Two defeats and the phrase “perennial loser” starts to precede one’s names in the political blogs, one doesn’t need “sore loser” added to the epithet, so grace is not just grace, but smart politics.

More’s the pity, too.  Had he run for state auditor (a common step for ambitious pols), Mr. Donovan could have had it at a walk and then had a quiet conversation with Mr. Sorrell about how much longer he planned to be AG.  Instead, my sources tell me Mr. Sorrell got an unexpected call from Mr. Donovan this spring, letting him know he had a primary challenger.

Political blogs, out-of-state Super PAC money, Democrats “primarying” each other.  Much as we like to think we’re different, the discouraging clouds in America’s political sky are also hover over Vermont.  (BTW, as sparsely populated as the Vermont Republican Party is, it didn’t stop a nasty fight from breaking out in the Franklin County state senate race.)

© Mark Floegel, 2012

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