Analysis & Reaction: Sorrell’s State Committee Endorsement Loss

Among Democratic Party activists at the Hamburger Summit, some of whom attended this morning’s VDP State Committee meeting, the overall perception was that Attorney General Bill Sorrell is campaigning badly. A few even suggested he’s “phoning it in,” whether from ineptitude, laziness, or a sense of entitlement. Several themes emerged in discussions of Sorrell’s endorsement loss.

Among them:

  • Sorrell failed to file his endorsement paperwork on time to receive a co-endorsement with TJ Donovan in May, despite outreach from the VDP staff to facilitate that outcome.
  • None of the State Committee members received a call from the candidate asking for their votes (a Tip O’Neill moment).
  • The candidate didn’t come to the meeting, citing a prior commitment to a parade in Lyndonville (Northeast Kingdom, where no doubt there was a ton of Democratic primary voters).
  • Sorrell used a non-union shop for printing campaign materials which have been in distribution for more than a week.
  • Sorrell’s surrogates, campaign manager Mike Pieciak and Chief Deputy AG Janet Murnane, did not do a good job selling the candidate or his approach to issues raised by State Committee members.
  • Sorrell has a long history of refusing to contribute to the coffers of the Coordinated Campaign.

The overall impression is that the incumbent Sorrell has barely moved into campaign mode, although his campaign staff was on board more than three months ago. Further, several observers identified Sorrell’s approach as “taking it for granted” that he would be endorsed.

[After the jump: what happened at the meeting.]


Pieciak opened his presentation by ineffectively apologizing for his candidate’s absence, saying, in part, “We only just found out earlier this week that this meeting was happening today …”

And that is the sort of political ineptitude that keeps happening for Sorrell’s campaign, and is unexpected from a 15-year incumbent. Although, one observer noted that Sorrell was appointed to the position (once his predecessor was moved on to the state Supreme Court) and has rarely faced opposition since.

The questions raised at the meeting included Sorrell’s recent court losses on state control of the Entergy Yankee nuclear power plant’s closure, campaign finance regulation, and protection for physicians from datamining-based marketing by pharmaceutical companies.

The ethics of Chief Deputy A.G. Janet Murnane’s status as an employee campaigning for her employer was also questioned, along with Sorrell’s inaction on other states’ DOMA (the federal Defense of Marriage Act) cases.

Murnane sprinkled some form of the word “active”  throughout her explanation of her office’s current activities, about every sixth word: “Bill Sorrell is actively pursuing …” “We are taking an active role on …” But the argument was obviously not convincing.

In the committee meeting there was a lot of discussion as to the meaning of a State Committee “endorsement.” The process originated as a way to support Bernie Sanders’ first run for the Senate; without a state party endorsement, he could not receive help from the DNC. In a couple of cases since then, it has also allowed the committee to keep Republican ringers out of the state party’s campaign funds and off the Democratic ballot line. The bylaw provision is, said VDP Treasurer and longtime activist Linda Weiss, more of a certification that this person is a bonafide Democrat. (Or, in the case of Bernie Sanders, someone Democrats should and would support due to shared values.)  

In an odd twist that led to today’s vote, the committee is allowed to “endorse” multiple candidates for the same office.

Rutland County Democratic Committee Chair Kathy Hall apparently shared Sorrell’s expectation of an easy and automatic endorsement. Visibly and audibly angry at the results, she said she was leaving, because the vote did not reflect explanations of the meaning of the “endorsement” vote she heard at the May meeting where T.J. Donovan was successful. She walked out of the meeting and sat in a hallway, despite a plea from Weiss to stay.

“We’re Democrats, this is what we do: we fight with each other,” said Weiss. “We don’t walk out, we sit down and try to figure out how to make it better.”

In reaction, we expect Bill Sorrell to discount the importance of the vote and maybe even to denigrate the State Committee rather than take responsibility for his own campaign errors.

There’s a faint chance that Sorrell’s pre-primary campaigning in the Republican-friendly Northeast Kingdom instead of among his own party activists, may be a counter-intuitive strategy: courting Republican voters to cross over to vote for him in the Democratic primary.

If he wins the primary, the State Committee’s no-confidence vote will likely come back to haunt its members.

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