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Vermont Attorney General-elect Charity Clark talks about her plans for the state’s highest law enforcement office

Charity Clark
Pat Bradley
Vermont Attorney General-elect Charity Clark

In January, Charity Clark will be sworn in as Vermont Attorney General. The Democrat, the first woman elected attorney general, easily won this month’s election, and will replace Democrat T.J. Donovan. Clark spoke with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley about her victory and plans for the office.

I think that my message really resonated with Vermonters. And in the general election there was a stark difference between the positions that I took and those that my opponent took. Issues like access to reproductive liberty. I believe that reproductive liberty is a human right and that was in contrast to my opponent. We took different approaches to public safety issues. And of course, our experience is vastly different. I have been an attorney for 17 years. I've worked in the Attorney General's office for eight years and have worked in government before I even went to law school. My opponent had not practiced as an attorney, had not gone to law school and wasn't an attorney. I think voters really wanted someone with my experience to bring to the office.

Charity Clark, on your website during your campaign you listed four areas of priority issues: small business and consumers, the environment, public safety and criminal justice reform and violence against women. How do you plan to incorporate those four issue areas as Attorney General?

Well, those are issues that are core to what the attorney general does. I want to start at the end, which is to point out that Vermont has never elected, until now, a woman attorney general. And I will of course be looking at issues that my lived experience will inform. And domestic violence is top of the list. There are 40,000 victims of sexual and domestic violence in Vermont every year. And I don't think we should be talking about public safety until we include the issue of domestic violence. This is an epidemic that happens behind closed doors and so I don't think it gets the attention that it deserves. And, you know, to get into the weeds a little with you Pat, we have in the Attorney General's office the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission assigned by statute to review the fatalities related to domestic violence every year and come up with recommendations on how we can protect people better. And I will be focusing on those recommendations, amplifying the message of the stakeholders in that commission and making sure that attention is paid on the issue of domestic violence.

The other issues should be familiar to anybody who has followed what the attorney general does. Consumer issues are incredibly important and core to the work that we do. The Consumer Assistance Program, of course, is the office that folks can call if they have a consumer concern, if they have a scam they want to report and 15,000 Vermonters make contact every year with the Consumer Assistance Program. But we also bring cases against businesses who are engaging in unfair or deceptive practices in the marketplace in violation of the Consumer Protection Act. That is one of the main roles that the consumer unit at the Attorney General's office plays. I of course came from that unit when I was an assistant attorney general and supervised the consumer assistance program when I was Chief of Staff. So of course, those issues are really important to me.

Moving on to public safety, public safety is paramount. Public safety is core to what the attorney general's office does. At the same time we're focusing on public safety, prioritizing public safety, we also need to be looking for the opportunities to reform our criminal justice system so that it reflects Vermont's values and so that it's more effective. Because outdated models of approaching public safety that are not effective don't serve anyone. And we need to be looking at the scholarship and the evidence-based information we have in terms of changing the way we do things. We have been in a process, especially in the legislature over the past few years, to reform our criminal justice system. And I think that there's more work to be done. I'm hopeful, for example, that the sealing law will be expanded to allow folks with old criminal records, to put those in the past and move on with their lives, get a better job, etc.

And then finally, you know, the environment is just a core value that I have. I think it's one of those unifiers in Vermont where we all love the outdoors in Vermont. It's just a shared value that we have. And protecting our environment is really important. It's something that we do with the Attorney General's office and with a special look to the Global Warming Solutions Act. It's going to fall in the legislature this January to make bold steps because past efforts have not been successful in meeting the mandates of the Global Warming Solutions Act. The Global Warming Solutions Act said that we in Vermont need to meet certain targets with regards to emissions and greenhouse gases. And if we don't meet those targets then we are running the risk of being sued. And of course the Attorney General defends those lawsuits. So I want to make sure that we're doing everything we can to meet those targets. So that was a very long soliloquy, but those are all the topics that I can address.

Well, Charity Clark, you mentioned some of the units and divisions. There's been some turnover in the office. You saw Attorney General Donovan leave and an acting AG is now in place before you move in. How are you going to address what has happened in the AG’s office in the last six months or so? And do you plan to hire more people? Are you going to shift any divisions or resources? What do you plan to do?

Well, as a starting point, I’ll acknowledge it has been really hard, I think, to have a lot of changes this year. And when you have a two-year term on the attorney general there's going to be changes, right. That's not crazy. The office is prepared for that. But I think as Attorney General and as a leader, it's going to be really important for me to come in, greet my former colleagues and see what they've been up to and get in touch with all the great work that they're doing and what's important to them. Since the pandemic we've been mostly remote and just checking on on how that's working. And, you know, getting a pulse on what's been happening in the office in the past six months since I've been gone because I left in May to run for attorney general. And there have been vacancies. Of course there's vacancies all over Vermont. We have, you know, the great resignation and whatever going on everywhere and we of course at the AGs office are no exception. But I'll be wanting to just check in with folks, see how things are going and then look at policies that might encourage retention. It's easy to focus on recruitment, but retention is so important. Frankly it's very expensive to lose employees and have to find new employees. You kind of lose productivity. It's a strain on the folks who are left, etc. So, retention is really important. Something that I, again, because of my lived experience and that being a unique lived experience to have by the Attorney General, I want to look and make sure that parents are getting what they need. I don't think that our Infants in the Workplace policy is the best way of, for example, addressing parents who have babies. I think paid family leave is a much better way of doing that. I also think we need to be looking at childcare and addressing the challenge of childcare and doing everything that we can to advocate for that resource because that is a huge stress on workers all across Vermont and the Attorney General's office is no exception. It's really short sighted to be talking about a worker shortage without looking at the policies that are inadequate in meeting parents where they are.

Charity Clark, you've talked about being the first female elected Vermont Attorney General, because the one that was appointed to fill the gap between Attorney General Donovan leaving and the person who was elected being sworn in, that person appointed is a woman but she wasn't elected. So you will be the first elected female Vermont Attorney General. Do you feel any additional weight is added to your role perhaps as a role model or something else?

I mean, I do. I tell a story about when I was a little girl and Madeline Kunin was governor and she came to my town for Greenup Day. And it made a huge impression on me, in part because I didn't realize that Vermont was just extra cool for having a woman governor that that was very unusual. And to think that all of these decades later I have a young child of my own and only now have we elected a woman attorney general. I'm very motivated to be the person who goes to those towns on Greenup Day like Governor Madeleine Kunin did for me to say, hey you're interested in being a lawyer. You could be attorney general even if you're a girl. I also think it's important for the bar. You know, Attorney General I would argue is probably the most powerful attorney in our state and for the women who are practicing law in Vermont to see that it is possible to achieve that, even if you're a woman, I think is really important.

Charity Clark will be sworn in as Vermont Attorney General at the beginning of the legislative session in January.

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