Toby Talbot / AP Photo
Attorney General William Sorrell, left, and his Democratic primary opponent, TJ Donovan, shake hands Wednesday.
BURLINGTON — Summer’s biggest political rivals vowed to become autumn allies as TJ Donovan on Wednesday morning conceded the Democratic primary for attorney general to incumbent William Sorrell.
Trailing by about 600 votes with fewer than a dozen precincts left to report Wednesday morning, the 38-year-old challenger phoned Sorrell to congratulate him on a hard-fought win.
“I have absolutely no regrets,” Donovan, 38, said in a concession speech in Burlington’s Battery Park. “I’m proud of the campaign we ran.”
Though the contest turned nasty at times — each of the candidates in one debate accused the other of violations of election law — Donovan said he made a “commitment to work with Attorney General Sorrell on his re-election bid.”
At a noontime Democratic “unity rally” in a redeveloped commercial property on the Burlington waterfront, Donovan grasped Sorrell’s left hand and raised it skyward as the two smiled for a cheering crowd of about 75 party loyalists.
“Bill, I’m with you all the way,” Donovan said.
Having survived the fight of his political career, Sorrell said he heads into the general election race against Republican businessman Jack McMullen “battle hardened.”
“I do have a tough race,” Sorrell said. “There are very real differences between myself and my Republican opponent.”
Sorrell’s campaign manager, Mike Pieciak, said a victory in November hinges on rebuilding relationships with groups that backed Donovan over the summer. Donovan won more than 20,000 votes Tuesday. Pieciak said Sorrell will need those same people to come out for him in November to be assured a win.
“The priority now is to mend the fences, number one,” Pieciak said.
Donovan won endorsements from organized labor, including the Vermont State Employees Association, AFL-CIO, Vermont Troopers Association and Professional Firefighters of Vermont.
Those groups played a key role in a highly regarded Donovan field organization credited with nearly pulling off what would have been a remarkable upset over a seven-term incumbent.
Donovan also showed crossover appeal, winning endorsements from Republican mayors and state senators.
“We need to mend fences with everybody — the 20,000 people that voted for TJ, and the various organizations that supported him,” Pieciak said.
Sorrell admitted Wednesday that while he thought the race would be close, “I didn’t think it would be quite that close.”
“I thought it would be over by 9:30 or 10 Tuesday night, not 9:30 or 10 Wednesday morning,” Sorrell said.
Pieciak said the campaign had been focused on returns from two cities at opposite ends of the state — Burlington and Brattleboro.
“We thought those would be a good barometer of the race,” Pieciak said. “So when we lost by 400 votes in Burlington and won by 400 in Brattleboro, we knew it was going to be close.”
Pieciak and Sorrell’s top political adviser, Kate O’Connor, both hail from Brattleboro, a fact that Pieciak said may have had something to do with the lopsided margin. Pieciak said he thinks Sorrell, who fared well in other Windham County precincts, also had support from the anti-nuclear contingency living near the Vermont Yankee plant in Vernon.
Though he lost the race, the narrowness of the margin of defeat to a 15-year incumbent secures Donovan’s status among the Vermont Democratic Party’s brightest prospects. Asked about his political future Wednesday, Donovan, with his wife and infant son next to him, said, “I’m going to look at my wife and not answer that question.”
“I’m not thinking about the future,” said Donovan, the second-term Chittenden County state’s attorney. “I’m thinking about all the work I need to do at home.”
Speaking at the unity rally, Gov. Peter Shumlin was less circumspect.
“If you look around at statewide office holders, you will see we have something in common: graying hair … lack of hair in some cases, and we are growing older,” Shumlin said. “But what TJ Donovan has proven in this campaign without any reasonable doubt is that we and he have a bright future in younger Democrats that want to lead this state.”
Addressing Donovan directly, Shumlin said, “TJ, you will continue to have a critical role in (Vermont).”
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