TJ Donovan won’t seek reelection as Vermont attorney general

Attorney General TJ Donovan speaks during a press conference at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Jan. 9, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated at 7:58 p.m.

A rising star in Vermont politics is stepping aside — at least for now.

Attorney General TJ Donovan announced Thursday he will not seek reelection, nor is he likely to run for another public office this year.

“After 16 years, I need a break,” Donovan said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. “I would say the first year of the pandemic I was OK. I kind of hit a wall this past year and really wrestled with this decision. But I want to take a break and I want to do something different.” 

He said he did not know whether he would finish out his two-year term as attorney general, which ends in January. Donovan said he was “in conversations” about other jobs and that whether or not he stepped down early would depend on where those went.

“I would like to,” he said of completing his term. “But I don’t think I can commit to that, just given the reality of the situation.”

According to Vermont law, the governor is charged with filling vacancies in statewide positions. The governor may — but is not required to — choose from a slate of candidates recommended by the party of the outgoing office-holder.

Donovan, a South Burlington Democrat, was first elected attorney general in 2016. He previously served as Chittenden County state’s attorney for 10 years. The scion of two prominent political families — the Leddys and the Donovans — he has long been viewed as a future contender for Congress or the governorship. 

Donovan suggested in a written statement Thursday that he would not run for any office in 2022, saying, “it is time to take a break from the political world and pursue other opportunities.” But in the phone interview, he left open the possibility that he might seek the governorship if Republican Gov. Phil Scott does not seek reelection. Pressed on the point, Donovan said he “fully (expects) the governor to run for re-election.”

Donovan’s decision makes him the sixth of nine statewide officeholders in Vermont to announce they won’t seek reelection this fall, setting up a seismic shift in the state’s politics. The AG’s news comes a day after Treasurer Beth Pearce announced her retirement, citing health challenges. Others retiring or running for higher office include Sen. Patrick Leahy, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Secretary of State Jim Condos. 

Potential successors

With the filing deadline to run as a major party candidate for state office just weeks away, the fields for attorney general and treasurer are wide open.

Donovan said he knew of several people interested in succeeding him but said it was premature to make any endorsements. 

“I think it's too early to say,” he said. “We'll address that at a later date.”

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, Donovan’s successor as the top prosecutor in the state’s most populous county, said Thursday afternoon that she is not interested in running for the statewide post — and would instead seek reelection.

George, who has focused on criminal justice reform, said she’s more interested in criminal law than the civil litigation that makes up the core of the attorney general’s work. “That’s really just not where my background is,” she said. “That’s not where my passion is. It’s not where my experience is.” 

Charity Clark, Donovan’s chief of staff, said that she is “very seriously considering” running for attorney general. Clark, who said she would run as a Democrat, said it would be premature at this point to talk more about her interest in the post.

“I would say that I am very motivated by the fact that there has never been a woman attorney general of Vermont,” Clark said.

Brooks McArthur, a Burlington attorney, said that he is also considering running for attorney general as a Democrat. He declined further comment. 

Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said that he is also “absolutely considering” a run as a Democrat. 

“I plan over the next few days to speak with family, friends and colleagues about whether to do it,” Thibault said. 

He said he hasn’t decided whether he would still run for reelection to the county prosecutor’s post this year if he opted to seek statewide office. 

Shap Smith, a former Democratic House speaker from Morrisville, declined to comment Thursday when asked if he intends to run for attorney general.

Asked if any Republican candidates were lining up, Vermont GOP chair Paul Dame responded: “None to report right now.”

Six years in office

Donovan’s path to the Attorney General’s Office was more than a little bumpy. 

He challenged incumbent Attorney General Bill Sorrell in a bruising 2012 Democratic primary race and lost by fewer than 1,000 votes. He sat out running against Sorrell for a second time in 2014 and instead won election to a third term as Chittenden County state’s attorney. 

Two years later, when Sorrell announced he was retiring, Donovan jumped into the 2016 race, ran uncontested in the Democratic primary and won easily over Republican nominee Deb Bucknam in the general election. 

Since then, Donovan has faced little opposition in re-election campaigns. This year seemed no different until he announced Thursday he would not run again.

Over the years, Donovan has considered seeking higher office. He flirted two years ago with challenging Scott for governor. “I’ve had conversations, but that’s what I would chalk it up to: conversations,” he said at that time.

Throughout his six-year tenure as attorney general, he has pushed for criminal justice reforms in the Legislature, from supporting historic gun control measures to pushing for more aggressive domestic violence prosecutions and laws.

He joined with state’s attorneys across Vermont in holding expungement clinics to help people clear past convictions from their records.

“Expunging criminal records gives Vermonters a fresh start by providing greater educational, economic and social opportunities,” he said earlier this year.

Under his leadership, Vermont has joined a range of national lawsuits, from challenging Big Pharma for its role in creating the opioid crisis to fighting Big Tech and data brokers from infringing on people’s privacy.

He brought suits against opioid distributors Cardinal and McKesson in state court. In 2021, he signed Vermont on to nationwide settlement agreements with three major opioid distributors as well as Johnson & Johnson, which was expected to result in a $64 million payout to the state, according to Seven Days

Vermont is further expected to receive at least $36 million from a March settlement with the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma. 

Donovan also signed onto many legal challenges to Trump administration policies, often alongside fellow Democratic attorneys general. He joined lawsuits against the former president’s immigration, firearms and environmental practices.

Closer to home, Donovan became embroiled in several controversies.

He took the unusual step of interjecting himself in three cases after they had been dismissed by George, the county prosecutor. Scott had prompted Donovan to review the cases, which involved murder and attempted murder charges.

In dismissing those cases, George said she would not have been able to counter insanity defenses based on expert evaluations of the defendants and spoke of the need to improve Vermont’s mental health system.

Donovan argued that the seriousness of the offenses warranted pressing forward with the cases in the criminal justice system.

Donovan also faced criticism after he failed to bring charges against Max Misch, a white nationalist who admitted to racially harassing former Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington, the only Black woman serving in the Legislature at the time. 

In announcing he would not be filing criminal charges against Misch, Donovan cited broad First Amendment protections, particularly when it comes to speaking about public officials.

A short time later, Donovan’s office filed criminal charges against Misch for allegedly possessing illegal high capacity ammunition magazines. 

Misch was the first person charged under the state’s magazine ban, which went into effect in 2018. The case remains pending, but Donovan’s office fended off a constitutional challenge to the law brought by Misch before the Vermont Supreme Count. 

On police shootings, Donovan’s office has consistently ruled officers were justified in their use of deadly force over the past six years.

And on the EB-5 investor scandal, Donovan did not press for any state criminal charges related to the largest fraud case in Vermont history, which played out in the Northeast Kingdom.

Instead, he allowed federal prosecutors to continue to take the lead in the investigation that ultimately led to federal criminal charges and convictions against three of the developers, including Bill Stenger, Jay Peak’s former president, and Ariel Quiros, the resort’s former owner.

Donovan’s office has fought releasing public records related to the EB-5 scandal, stating that doing so would compromise the state’s position in ongoing related litigation and could open the state up to possible financial liability.

“When this thing’s over, things get released. But until the court rules, I have a professional obligation to represent my clients,” Donovan said in 2018, referring to state officials. “I have a fiduciary duty to represent my clients. I know it's not popular, but that's the job.” 

Donovan said he was also proud of his office’s work on the Pillsbury case, in which the state took over management of a group of senior living communities after the facilities failed to carry out basic business practices and stock enough food. 

He declined to share details on Thursday on any regrets from his time in office. 

“Of course I would have handled some cases differently in hindsight,” Donovan said. “But you make your decisions and you stick with them.” 

He didn’t rule out seeking elective office again in the future, cautioning that “you never say never.”

“But look, these are hard jobs,” he said. “They’re great jobs, but they’re hard jobs.” 

So what does Donovan plan to do with his political war chest, worth roughly $300,000?

“Maybe I keep it for another day,” he said. “Maybe I'd donate it to other candidates or parties.”

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Riley Robinson

About Riley

Riley Robinson is a general assignment and multimedia reporter, covering stories across the state in writing, photos and video. She is a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism and first joined the Digger newsroom as a Dow Jones News Fund intern.

Email: [email protected]

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