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Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan discusses his decision not to run for reelection

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan announces lawsuit against drug distributors
Pat Bradley/WAMC
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Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan (file)

On Thursday, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan became the latest in a string of statewide officials to announce he will not run for re-election this year. First elected in 2016, Donovan previously spent a decade as Chittenden County State’s Attorney. He tells WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley he wrestled with the idea of stepping down.

Donovan: Yeah it was a hard decision. I mean, it's a job that I love. It's a job that I care about. It's an important job. But, you know, after 16 years, I just think it was time to take a break and try something different.

Bradley: TJ, there's been a lot of polarization in national politics that in many cases filtered down to state and local politics. Was that a factor at all as you looked at making your decision?

No, not at all. You know you're right about the polarization nationally. I think in Vermont we certainly have our disagreements. But we're not as polarized as the rest of the country. So that hasn't been my experience. I think for me it was the day in and day out work that I truly enjoyed. But also think that, you know, I hit a wall and knew that taking a break is is sometimes good. Look being Attorney General and being state's attorney is a 24-7 job. Then you have to add the political piece on top of it and it's a lot. And you know I worked hard at it. But I think it's time to do something different.

What do you think some of the key accomplishments that you have, you know, moved forward with over your course as Attorney General?

I think the work we've done on opioids and being able to settle the cases with Purdue and the Sackler family and some of the distributors and bring in over $100 million for Vermont and help people who are suffering from addiction. It was really meaningful for me., because that's the work that I started as State's Attorney, trying to deal with the prescription drug epidemic, building out public health strategies and creating alternatives to our criminal justice system and working to expunge old criminal records and working with the medical community for folks who are struggling with addiction. So be able to have that civil settlement, to be so involved in that negotiation and that the end was it was really a nice bookend I think for me. And that was important for me to get that to get that done. It kind of gave me clarity too or at least peace of mind about, you know, now may be a time to move on, because that was the last 10 or 12 years of the work I've done.

I also think kind of building out our community justice system. You know starting from trying to build out diversion programs in Chittenden County to building that out statewide. So we now truly have equal access to justice in all 14 counties which was a long sought after goal in our state. Prior to that work I'm proud of the work of standing up for vulnerable Vermonters, protecting our environment, or standing up for consumers, trying to carve out what privacy means in the digital age. So I'm really proud of my record. Certainly there's always more work done. But I'm also proud of I think bringing a philosophy and a value, a Vermont value, to our criminal justice system. And that's one of mercy, of compassion, of second chances. And I've tried to bring those values into our system by building onto the programs and really believing in the goodness and the best of Vermonters.

You know I grew up in Vermont and certainly was the beneficiary of multiple second chances and wanted to make sure that Vermonters got those second chances. And some of the work that I really cared about was doing expungement clinics across the state that really gave people an opportunity to get their life back, get a better job, be more engaged in the community, with their kids. And that's the stuff I care about.

TJ, obviously you still have about eight months left in your term. Are there certain cases you're going to focus on before you leave office?

You know, look, I'm going to be focused, doing my job as long as I'm Attorney General and, you know, to serving Vermonters and, you know, we'll see what happens next. And, you know, I certainly have to kind of look at my own situation, explore different opportunities. But as long as I'm Attorney General I'm going to remain committed to serving Vermonters.

And you mentioned other opportunities. Are there certain things that you're looking at or that you're considering as other opportunities or is this just something that you're kind of leaving open right now?

Yeah, I think leave it open. You know I have an open mind about things and we'll see what's out there.

You also say this is a break from the political world. Does this mean we might see you someday in the future running for office again?

You know, I don't know. You never say never in this business. But I think for the time being it's time to take a break.

Donovan did not rule out a return to politics, but says he expects Republican Governor Phil Scott will run for a fourth term this year.

Washington County State’s attorney Rory Thibault, a Democrat from Cabot, announced he would run for attorney general shortly after Donovan exited the race.  Other candidates are considering entering the race but have yet to formally announce.