Washington County residents may find it challenging to find the differences between the two Democrats vying for the vacant state’s attorney seat, as both candidates say they favor many of the same approaches to the county’s most pressing problems. But not entirely.
Michelle Donnelly, a law professor at Vermont Law School’s South Royalton Legal Clinic, and Bridget Grace, a current deputy state’s attorney for Washington County, are running to become the top prosecutor in Vermont’s third-largest county. Incumbent Rory Thibault is running for attorney general, and no Republican has entered the race.
Donnelly earned her law degree from Vermont Law School in 2013 and, according to her campaign announcement, has taken “more than a dozen cases to trial” as a deputy state’s attorney in both Washington and Orleans counties. She has argued twice in front of the Vermont Supreme Court, including one case that set a precedent for the rights of immigrant children.
Grace received her law degree in 2007 from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and worked in private practice and as a public defender in the Northeast Kingdom before joining the Washington County State’s Attorney Office in 2019. According to a Times Argus article announcing her candidacy, she argued her first case in front of the Vermont Supreme Court last December and “is no stranger to the courtroom.”
In recent interviews, Donnelly and Grace agreed that domestic violence is at the forefront of issues that Washington County residents face, and that problem has only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We went through a period where we just were seeing an explosion of those cases when we first went into the lockdown,” Grace said.
Donnelly said domestic violence is closely connected to substance abuse, which both candidates identified as another pressing concern in Washington County.
If elected state’s attorney, Donnelly said she would continue advocating for those who face the most risk from domestic violence, as she said she has done through her work at Vermont Law School’s Family Law Project.
“I see this role as absolutely an opportunity to work with vulnerable Vermonters, not only as victims of crime, but also as perpetrators of crime,” Donnelly said. “Oftentimes the perpetrators of crimes are also coming from places of deep vulnerability because they are suffering poverty, their own trauma, their substance use disorder, mental health needs that are not being addressed.”
Grace, who has served as a deputy for the past three years, wants to continue the partnerships Thibault has built with outreach organizations to help provide services to those in need.
“My goal would be to continue those relationships and continue to build more relationships,” said Grace. She specifically identified organizations such as Mosaic Vermont, which works to end sexual violence.
Grace and Donnelly also want to strengthen the county’s diversion program. The restorative justice approach takes a case out of the court system; instead, the defendant works with community members to make amends for the crime he or she committed, thereby avoiding a criminal record.
Grace said she would like to see “potentially more cases going that route,” yet staffing issues often limit the number of cases assigned to diversion. Adding staff to the program could help reduce a backlog of cases and increase capacity, she said.
Donnelly said she would like to expand the diversion program to include more services, including “in-house case management, maybe some in-house drug and alcohol screening and even some treatment for people right there in-house.”
Donnelly said she also wants to more staff in the program “to provide the services that they need for the youth that are involved in our justice system.”
Both candidates also emphasized the importance of keeping strong relationships with law enforcement agencies as part of the state’s attorney’s role, but differed on how they would handle cases that involved charges of excessive use of force by police.
“The public needs to know that law enforcement will be held accountable for their actions so that they can trust them,” Donnelly said. “And they need to know that the state’s attorney’s office is going to be giving that oversight.”
Grace agreed these cases must be “addressed appropriately,” but said she believes an outside perspective would be vital.
“It's probably best if someone who doesn't have that relationship with law enforcement in this county is the one who’s reviewing those cases,” she said.
Montpelier Police Chief Brian Peete said he will be looking for “guidance” and “support” from the state’s attorney’s office, no matter who wins the upcoming election.
“We need somebody who's going to make sure that there are accountability mechanisms in place to keep standards and professionalism up,” Peete said. He also said the state’s attorney needs to support law enforcement in efforts to be proactive in their communities.
Another similarity is at play in the race: Either Donnelly and Grace would be the first woman elected state’s attorney in Washington County. (Deputy State’s Attorney Kristin Gozzi served as acting state’s attorney when Scott Williams left in 2017.)
Both candidates spoke about the significance of paving the way for women to run for public office in the future, and the importance of their daughters seeing them in these positions.
“When our younger generations see that, it doesn't seem as much of a barrier or an impossibility and they can see themselves potentially in that role,” Grace said.
Donnelly agreed and emphasized the importance of setting examples for all Vermonters.
“I think that it's just really important to be a role model and to do the job well,” she said, “to show that anybody can do it, no matter what your gender or no matter what your identity is.”
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