BURLINGTON — Candidates for attorney general took a few rhetorical jabs at each other Tuesday during a debate and noted their several fundamental differences, from their philosophy of the job to how they would handle the state’s long-running attempts to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.
Republican Jack McMullen repeatedly noted distinctions between himself and Democratic Attorney General William Sorrell and occasionally Progressive Party candidate Ed Stanak. McMullen suggested the 15-year incumbent hasn’t been as tough on crime as he could have been, which Sorrell challenged while noting his experience. Stanak said resources for the “war on drugs” could better be focused on consumer privacy and potential private contract issues with the state.
During the opening of the debate, held by The Burlington Free Press, McMullen immediately sought to discuss the problem of drug-related crime as the reason for his campaign.
“Drug-related crime, which is sweeping the state — we’re at a tipping point here — has been left to state’s attorneys. As a consequence, we have 14 different standards by which these infractions are prosecuted,” he said.
McMullen said the 14 state’s attorneys execute standards inconsistently, which has created vulnerable areas that criminals have discovered.
He said a statewide task force should be created to make a more uniform policy of criminal law.
Sorrell, from Burlington, pointed to the slayings of Michelle Gardner-Quinn in Burlington and Patricia Scoville in Stowe, both of which resulted in life sentences for their killers.
While all candidates agree on some form of decriminalization for marijuana, McMullen said he would like to see the first three instances be the equivalent of a parking ticket as part of an incremental approach. Sorrell suggested the first violation should have the same weight as the fifth offense.
Stanak, from Barre, said he’d like to see marijuana legalized to stop wasting resources for the war on drugs. He said farmers could also benefit from agricultural hemp.
Regarding the philosophy of the office, Stanak repeated that he’s interested in an activist approach. He said commercial entities should require customers to opt in, rather than opt out, for programs such as those that raise privacy concerns. He said that rather than prioritize action against a single mother who might have inappropriately used $1,000 or $2,000 of state money, he’s much more interested in issues like the $300 million in private contracts the state has with private entities for public services.
McMullen suggested he’d take a conservative approach to the office. He repeated that the office is not a policy shop, but said recommendations could be made to the Legislature. He said the office should get ahead of problems rather than passively “picking up the pieces.”
Sorrell, who has also served as a state’s attorney and was secretary of administration under Gov. Howard Dean, said his office would continue to make recommendations as it has in the past. One such recommendation informed health care providers that increasing pain medication for the dying would not violate laws even if that inadvertently hastened the person’s death.
On Vermont Yankee, Stanak suggested the state could bring a case to the Supreme Court by relying on water discharge permits for the plant. He said the issue could benefit from his three decades as a district coordinator for Act 250.
McMullen challenged that approach. He noted that the plant has operated for some 40 years without any major issues over discharge permits and questioned how that could now become a means against the company. Referring to Sorrell’s current approach, he also said appeal prospects were low and that he would instead negotiate over transparency and safety issues.
Sorrell took the chance to defend the state’s appeal in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City. He said California lost a case over a state-enforced moratorium in a trial and then in appeals court, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the California law in the end.
Regarding campaign financing, Stanak said he would contest the Supreme Court notion that corporate personhood allows for-profit companies to have the same free speech rights as people.
He said the Supreme Court has overturned “patently wrong” decisions in the past, like the Dred Scott decision, which upheld slavery; Plessy v. Ferguson, which protected segregation; and denial of women’s right to vote.
Sorrell said the Citizens United case created bad law but that unlimited independent expenditures can’t be constitutionally limited.
While the state has lost federal cases over campaign financing, Sorrell pointed out that U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions did uphold a portion of state law that requires political action committees to disclose where their money came from.
“Disclosure at least allows voters who want to take the time to see who’s supporting a candidate to make decisions accordingly,” Sorrell said.
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