Politics

Democratic candidates for attorney general pitch past experiences to Vermont voters

Rory Thibault and Charity Clark. Photos by Natalie Williams/VTDigger and Glenn Russell/VTDigger

When Vermonters cast their ballots in the Democratic primary for the state’s top law enforcement officer, they’ll be choosing between two candidates who may be difficult to distinguish on issues of policy.

While slim areas of daylight shine through between Charity Clark, the former chief of staff in the attorney general’s office, and Rory Thibault, the state’s attorney for Washington County, nowhere are their differences more clear than in the experiences and approaches each said they would bring to the job of attorney general.

Case in point? Whether the attorney general should appear in court to argue major cases.

“My background is through and through as a practitioner,” said Thibault, who has held his post since 2018. “I can absolutely see high-stakes cases or Vermont Supreme Court arguments where I would want to appear on behalf of the state. That’s a passion of mine, being in the court.” 

There are times, he contended, when the stakes are high enough that “the state’s top lawyer ought to be making the argument.” 

Not so, said Clark, who responded she’s “running a campaign to be attorney general, not a county prosecutor.”

“The attorney general doesn’t go to court and certainly not at the trial level,” Clark said. “I would not view doing so as an effective litigation strategy, given the power differential between the attorney general and a defendant.”  

Instead, Clark touted the past four years she spent as former Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan’s chief of staff, with a focus on managing and leading about 150 employees who work there. She stepped down from that post in May to run for attorney general after Donovan announced he wouldn’t seek reelection.

Clark, 47, of Williston, and Thibault, 39, of Cabot, are squaring off in the Democratic primary on Aug. 9, with early voting already underway. They are seeking the party’s nomination to run in the general election in November. 

In addition to managing staff across seven divisions — environmental, public protection, criminal, appellate, human services, civil, and general counsel and administrative law — the attorney general plays a key role in the legislative process, frequently testifying or directing staff to testify before lawmakers on proposed laws.

Republican H. Brooke Paige, a perennial candidate, and Progressive Elijah Bergman have also filed to run. They are all competing for a seat that had been held since 2016 by Donovan, a Democrat who announced in May that he would not seek reelection and weeks later took a lobbying post with the online gaming platform Roblox. (Republican Gov. Phil Scott appointed former secretary of administration Susanne Young to fill out Donovan’s term.)

Clark said as chief of staff her duties included supervising the consumer assistance program, advising Donovan day-to-day as a member of the leadership team (“with him all the time, working on major decisions of the office,” she said), overseeing legislative initiatives and handling external communications. 

Thibault talks up his hands-on prosecutorial time in the courtroom and leading criminal investigations. If elected as attorney general, he would work on “empowering” others, he said, in what has been called the state’s largest law firm. 

“My goal from a structural standpoint would be more deferential to division chiefs and really empowering the assistant attorney generals to do good work,” he said.

He has frequently been called on by other state’s attorneys to take cases in which they have conflicts, including several high-profile ones. 

Among them are the prosecution brought late last month of Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton on two counts of sexual assault, one count of domestic violence and one count of unlawful restraint. Newton has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is awaiting trial.

In another high-profile case outside of Washington County, Thibault did not bring criminal charges. In that case, Thibault declined to prosecute ex-Stowe Fire Chief Kyle Walker on allegations that he repeatedly sexually assaulted a woman while he was on duty as a Stowe police officer. 

Thibault described it as a “he said/she said” case that came down to "an unhealthy sexual relationship.”

The woman who accused Walker of sexual assault later told VTDigger that Thibault’s comments were "the most offensive thing I had to read."

Clark, asked about her courtroom experience and cases she served as lead attorney, pointed to work on consumer affairs matters before she became chief of staff in the attorney general’s office. 

“If you are trying to compare my experience as a litigator to Rory’s experience as a litigator, that’s a false equivalency,” Clark said. “The equivalency is, what has he been doing for the past four years and what I have been doing for the past four years?”

Clark stressed her past work in the office she is campaigning to lead. “I can think of no better experience to lead the Attorney General’s Office,” she said, “than to have led the office as a member of the leadership team as chief of staff.”

Jeffrey Amestoy, a Republican, served as attorney general from 1985 to 1997. He spent time in the courtroom prior to taking the post, having held the positions of assistant attorney general, chief prosecutor of the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Division, and commissioner of labor and industry, he said.

“It’s not the only thing you need, but it certainly is useful,” Amestoy said of courtroom experience. “The attorney general is very important in setting the culture of the office.”

He said he had only a couple of trials before taking office as attorney general and had also argued cases before the Vermont Supreme Court.

“When I was attorney general I tried to argue at least one appeal a year,” said Amestoy, who went on to serve as chief justice of the state’s highest court for seven years before retiring in 2004.

Bill Sorrell, a Democrat, served as attorney general from 1997 to 2016. Sorrell had previously served as a Chittenden County state’s attorney and administration secretary under former Gov. Howard Dean.

“I was glad I had experience in trials of different sorts,” Sorrell said. “My experience as administration secretary was very helpful to me too, in terms of the legislative process and how that all works.” 

He also spoke of the importance of leaning on the experiences of others in the attorney general’s office.

“I don’t pretend that I had real legal expertise in every sort of law that the AG’s office engages in,” he said. ”We clearly had specialists.” 

On policy matters, both Thibault and Clark support passing Proposal 5 on the ballot in November, which would amend the state’s constitution to guarantee reproductive rights. They also both call for increased protections for people seeking and providing abortions in Vermont in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month overturning Roe V. Wade. 

In addition, they each back enacting waiting periods on gun purchases and expanding the number and types of crimes eligible to be cleared from a person’s record.  

One area where their policy approaches differ centers on law enforcement accountability.

Thibault said creating a system that allows for a special or independent prosecutor to step into matters of allegations of police misconduct and use of force investigations could help bolster public trust in law enforcement. 

“A special prosecutor would be appropriate,” he said. “Having someone designated to that in the state I think is where we’re at.” 

Clark said she doesn’t think putting a special prosecutor in place would be a good idea. Vermont, she said, already has offices run by prosecutors who are elected — the attorney general on a statewide level and state’s attorney on a county basis.

“A special prosecutor? No,” Clark replied when asked about whether she supports the use of  such a position to handle police investigation into police misconduct or allegation of excessive use of force. 

She said she believed it was important that the prosecutors who oversee such critical cases are accountable to the voters. 

”The system that we have is better for that reason,” Clark said. 

Clark grew up in southern Vermont, working at her family’s grocery store in Ludlow. She is a graduate of the University of Vermont and Boston College Law School.

Before attending law school, she served as a policy analyst under Dean.

She said over her legal career she had litigated “hundreds of cases,” and while she added she also took some cases to trial, those all ultimately settled before reaching a verdict. 

Clark, if elected, would become the first woman in the state’s history to be elected to the position. (Young, appointed to the position last month and sworn in this month, is the first woman to hold the attorney general’s job, but is not running to maintain the post.)

Thibault was appointed Washington County state’s attorney by Scott in 2018 after the resignation of Scott Williams. A few months later, Thibault won election to a four-year term.

Prior to becoming state’s attorney, Thibault served as assistant attorney general as well as a chief deputy in the Washington County state’s attorney’s office. 

He grew up in Connecticut and is a 2007 graduate of Vermont Law School. Thibault has served in the U.S. Army as a judge advocate general and is currently an Army Reserve officer.

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