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Time To Vote 2018: Here Are The Candidates For Vermont Attorney General

A yellow overlay on a polling place scene with Vote signs and American flags, with the text Before You Make Your Final Final Final Choice...
Photo: Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR File

Voters in this election have the chance to choose who oversees law enforcement in Vermont and defends Vermont’s laws from legal challenges.

Time To Vote 2018 — Auditor | Governor | Lieutenant Governor | Secretary of State | Treasurer | U.S. House | U.S. Senate

What does the attorney general do?

The attorney general is the top law enforcement official in Vermont, and as the office's website puts it: "Our office represents the state in all matters in which the state is a party or has an interest."

So for example, the attorney general joins or files lawsuits on behalf of the state, figures out settlements related to those lawsuits, and may run investigations. The attorney general serves a two-year term.

Who's running for attorney general?

There are three candidates on the ballot in this general election:

  • T.J. Donovan (Democrat)
  • Rosemarie Jackowski (Liberty Union)
  • Janssen Willhoit (Republican)

Scroll to learn more about the candidates.

A thin grey line.

A yellow overlay on a polling place scene with Vote signs and American flags, with the name T.J. Donovan.
Credit Photo: Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR File

  • Democratic candidate
  • Incumbent, seeking second term; previously served as Chittenden County state's attorney
  • Town of residence: South Burlington
  • Website

On Vermont's incarceration practices:

Pledging to end Vermont's use of private, out-of-state prisons was a 2016 campaign focus for Donovan.About six months into Donovan's first term, however, the state ended its contract with a private, for-profit, out-of-state prison, and inmates were relocated to a state-run prison in Pennsylvania. Since then, Vermont has relocated those inmates yet again — this time to a private prison in Mississippi. It's a decision Donovan said he opposed.

"We shouldn't be abdicating our responsibility to a private, for-profit corporation to incarcerate Vermonters," Donovan said. "This is our responsibility."

He said we imprison too many people, and that "we're putting people who are poor, who are addicted, who suffer from mental illness in jail." Donovan cited transitional housing investments, community support programs like diversion, compassionate releases and criminal justice reform all as possible ways to continue to address Vermont's incarceration rate.

On addressing the opioid crisis:

Donovan said that during his career, a focus has been "to create a public health system that works in concert with our public safety system." He said opioids present a "public health crisis," and he noted his work in advocating for medically assisted treatment and a rapid intervention community court.

However, "the work we've done with prevention and treatment is not enough," Donovan said. "It's time for corporate accountability." Donovan said that's why he filed a recent lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the company that manufactures the opioid OxyContin.

On achieving transparency:

Donovan cited his push to have the state follow federal requirements for public records disclosures, and he noted that his office posts public records requests, as well as the responses, online.

As far as criticism he's received that his office hasn't been transparent when it comes to the EB-5 scandal in the Northeast Kingdom, Donovan said it was in the name of transparency that he requested Auditor Doug Hoffer conduct an independent review into the state government's role in the EB-5 situation.

And a little more: 

In a debate with Janssen Willhoit on Vermont Edition, Donovan weighed in on a few topics during a  lightning round:

First, he said he does think safe injection sites for opioid users can save lives and warrant discussion. But because of the federal government's threatened crackdown on anyone working in such a facility, Donovan said he agrees with the Governor's Opioid Coordination Council (which he's on) that the sites aren't right for Vermont now. Donovan said Vermont should keep an eye on how other places handle the situation, and proceed accordingly.

On guns, Donovan said he trusts Vermonters are following the state's new ban on high-capacity magazines, but that he definitely supports enforcement of this law "if the circumstances arise."

And when it comes to allowing non-U.S. citizens to vote in municipal elections, Donovan acknowledged there are "legal hurdles" to that but said it should be discussed, as he supports people being empowered to participate. 

Want to hear more from T.J. Donovan? Listen to an extended interview here.

A thin grey line.

A yellow overlay on a polling place scene with Vote signs and American flags, with the name Rosemarie Jackowski.
Credit Photo: Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR File

  • Liberty Union candidate
  • Has been a candidate for Vermont attorney general in every general election since 2006; has not held elected statewide office in Vermont
  • Town of residence: Bennington
  • Website

On Vermont's incarceration practices:

“I think that most nonviolent prisoners maybe shouldn’t be in prison in the first place," Jackowski said. "Some people should be — violent people, yes, society has to be protected. But nonviolent, I think that there are better solutions."

One alternate solution she suggested was community service in lieu of incarceration for certain violations.

On addressing the opioid crisis:

"It’s a medical problem, and I think it should be treated as such," Jackowski said, "but we’re not doing that. ... I think there is some room here for education, personal responsibility and medical treatment."

Jackowski said she's "not a fan of pharmaceutical companies," but that she doesn't think the solution is to consider them responsible for the opioid crisis or to pursue legal action against them. And if we "eliminated opioids totally," Jackowski said there could be negative impacts on those who suffer from chronic pain and rely on the medications.

On achieving transparency:

Jackowski said she's "probably one of the most transparent candidates ever in history," citing the availability of her online comments for people to read. She wants "an office of advocacy for private citizens," including a staffed hotline that people could contact to seek help.

"Issues of elder abuse, problems with adverse possession for property owners, on and on and on. Who do you call? You know? I don’t know. There is nobody," she said. "Those people who have enough money to hire private attorneys are really at a big advantage, but most people don’t have that kind of money."

As an example of the need for individuals to be able to voice concerns with the government, she cited that it was a member of the public who brought attention to the issue of PFOA water contamination in our region.

And a little more:

Jackowski said she has nothing against her competition and in fact agrees with Donovan on a majority of things. However she said she thinks the AG's office is "kind of held hostage by partisan politics, party machine."

"But voting for me helps start chipping away at the party machine," she said. "And maybe in 10 or 20 years from now, this will be an office that is really not controlled by any party politics."

Want to hear more from Rosemarie Jackowski? Listen to an extended interview here.

A thin grey line.

A yellow overlay on a polling place scene with Vote signs and American flags, with the name Janssen Willhoit.
Credit Photo: Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR File

On Vermont's incarceration practices:

Willhoit said he's opposed to sending inmates out of state because it makes oversight difficult. More broadly he said he feels the state needs to look at how many people it is putting in prison, and that low-level and nonviolent offenders in particular shouldn't be in prison. 

"Honestly, sending someone to prison should always be the last resort," he said.

Willhoit actually served time in prison for a financial crime — for which he was later pardoned by the governor of Kentucky — and said that experience in the system would inform his work as attorney general.

"There is a proper balance that needs to be taking place on really what punishment or rehabilitation best addresses the crime. But also, never forgetting that everybody — even our criminals — are still people," Willhoit said, citing his involvement in addressing prisoners rights issues.

On addressing the opioid crisis:

Willhoit said this office can target people bringing drugs into the state. But as far as those who are dealing with addiction themselves, Willhoit said, "those folks deserve the support and the treatment they need. And that support and treatment is not going to be inside a jail cell."

Willhoit suggests posession charges in particular should be misdemeanors: "If we're still treating addicts like criminals and throwing them in jail, then we're really not addressing the issue."

On achieving transparency:

Willhoit has said the EB-5 scandal inspired him to run and he's been critical of how the current office has handled the case, especially in terms of responding to information requests.

"We as Vermonters expect open and transparent government," Willhoit said. "And that even means that if something's been done wrong, untoward — even if it's maybe some of the most important people in Vermont — the Vermonters have a right to know that information."

To that end, Willhoit said that if elected he would release requested documents related to the EB-5 scandal that are currently being withheld. 

And a little more:

In a debate with T.J. Donovan on Vermont Edition, Willhoit weighed in on a few topics during a lightning round:

He stated he's not opposed to safe injection sites and is aware of successes, but admitted he had not yet read the Governor's Opioid Coordination Council's latest report that deemed them "presently not a viable option for Vermont." He said he defers to the panel's judgment about the implementation concerns.

On guns, Willhoit said he didn't support the state's new ban on high-capacity magazines, and that even though it is now law, it seems difficult to enforce and wouldn't be a good use of limited law enforcement resources.

And he said he doesn't support non-U.S. citizens voting in municipal elections, because even though it wouldn't extend to statewide or federal elections, he is concerned it is "a slippery slope" and subject to constitutional challenge.

Want to hear more from Janssen Willhoit? Listen to an extended interview here.

A thin grey line.

Keep going! Time To Vote 2018 — Auditor | Governor | Lieutenant Governor | Secretary of State | Treasurer | U.S. House | U.S. Senate

AND REMEMBER: Vermont's 2018 general election is Tuesday, Nov. 6.

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