Syrup on Jambalaya

Strange as it seems, Vermont has much in common with Louisiana.  Both states have a relatively large city (Burlington/New Orleans) which in many ways dominates the state’s profile, but folks who live outside that city take pains to disassociate themselves from it.  (“Burlington is close to Vermont,” is the refrain here.)

Each state has a smaller, capital city (Baton Rouge/Montpelier) a short distance (72/36 miles) up the road and the major city/capital city axis tends to carry significant political weight and is resented by the rest of the state.

Like Louisiana, Vermont’s politics tends to be dominated by a single party, which in Vermont’s case was Republican 50 years ago and is now predominantly Democratic (as opposed to Louisiana, which made the opposite switch). What this means in an election year – this election year – is that the only race of real interest will be the Democratic primary for the attorney general’s office.

The 15-year incumbent is Bill Sorrell, a Burlington native whose mother was a state senator and political rainmaker who bore a good deal of credit for electing Vermont’s first female governor, Madeleine Kunin.

His challenger is Chittenden County (i.e., Burlington) State’s Attorney (i.e., district attorney) TJ Donovan, who hails from an even more politically connected family.  It’s terribly impolitic of me to write this (but, so what?) but the great unspoken aura around TJ is that he is “The Next Pat Leahy.”

Sen. Leahy (D-VT) was elected Chittenden County state’s attorney at 26 and US senator at 34.  He’s currently second in seniority in the Senate and will likely become chair of the Appropriations Committee when Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) leaves the Senate by whatever means.  Also, at 72, Mr. Leahy is still a kid by Senate standards, so don’t expect him to go anywhere soon.

Still, Mr. Donovan is a golden boy whose rapid rise to the top of Vermont politics seems to be considered a divine right by the sprawling Leddy-Donovan clan, which sits atop Burlington politics the way the O’Connells used to in Albany, NY.  In 2008, then-34-year-old TJ pushed aside several competitors in the Democratic primary for state’s attorney and won that position easily.  Four years later, he’s taking on a long-time incumbent attorney general from his own party and city. (Mr. Sorrell took TJ’s aunt to the high school prom – how’s that for political near-incest?)

Both men have led dignified and courteous campaigns so far.  TJ seems to be picking up all the endorsements and running a more disciplined campaign, but Bill has 15 years of incumbency and statewide name recognition.  (All statewide offices are elected every two years; Mr. Sorrell, appointed to fill a vacancy in 1997, has won his office seven times, with only marginal opposition – until now.)

Mr. Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) hold the top political positions in Vermont and neither seems to be going anywhere soon.  That, however, does not prevent jockeying.  Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) and at-large Congressman Peter Welch (D) – both from Windham County in the state’s southeast corner – are presumably next in line for the Senate seats and neither can be happy about the rise of TJ and while neither will be caught saying so, both may be rooting for Mr. Sorrell, who is unlikely to run for an office higher than the one he holds.

The mystery to me is how TJ Donovan feels about this.  I see him occasionally, walking through my neighborhood at the end of the day in black wingtips and conservative slacks and shirt.  He seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. When I see him I wonder if, rather than being the scion of one of Vermont’s leading political clans, he might rather spend a year on a sailboat, growing a beard and playing bongos (or some other fate chosen by him, instead of thrust upon him).

© Mark Floegel, 2012

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