MIDDLEBURY — Burlington Republican Jack McMullen has perhaps best been known in Vermont’s political circles for having been unable to identify the correct number of teats on a cow when put on the spot by his irrepressible U.S. Senate GOP primary opponent Fred Tuttle in 1998.
Fourteen years later, McMullen himself is chuckling about that legendary misstep and is touting his credentials as a candidate for Vermont attorney general, a post he hopes to wrest from longtime Democratic incumbent Bill Sorrell.
McMullen, 70, is a businessman, lawyer, former U.S. Navy officer and former faculty member of Harvard University’s law and business schools. He grew up in what he described as a working class neighborhood in what was then a semi-rural Staten Island, N.Y. McMullen said he got his first job selling ice cream at age 10 to help support his family, which often struggled financially due to a chronic illness suffered by McMullen’s dad.
“We had an ethic of hard work and education, which is why I am where I am,” McMullen, a Vermont resident for the past 16 years, said. “I think I can relate, on a real-person level, to economic hardship, of which there are many stories here in our state. So I wouldn’t be an elitist attorney general without compassion for that status.”
McMullen believes Sorrell, a 16-year incumbent, is particularly vulnerable to defeat this year. He noted Sorrell only narrowly edged T.J. Donovan in a bruising Democratic primary in August that saw him expend a lot of resources and energy.
“(Sorrell) survived that race barely and he’s going into the general election with a divided party and a divided left,” McMullen said. “That doesn’t mean, in this state, that the Republican will do well, but it brightens the prospects.”
And McMullen believes he can score points with voters in emphasizing his top campaign priority: Cracking down on drug-related crime. It is an area in which McMullen believes Sorrell has under-performed during a tenure he believes has been largely occupied by consumer protection-related cases and unsuccessful legal action against the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and campaign finance laws.
Sorrell, McMullen claims, has given Vermont’s 14 state’s attorneys little guidance when it comes to prosecuting criminals. The result, he said, has been uneven prosecution strategies in the state’s counties.
“(Criminals) find out where the ‘heat is on’ and go somewhere else, since it’s 14 different decision-makers in terms of who gets prosecuted or not for what level of offense,” McMullen said. “That clearly suggests the need for a statewide policy, which the attorney general can’t do by himself, but he could convene, as the logical statewide officer, a task force.”
Such a task force, as McMullen envisions it, would be comprised of local and state law enforcement, mayors and selectboard members and the judiciary. The panel would hammer out a statewide policy for prosecution of drug-related crimes.
“It has been done in other states,” McMullen said.
He believes that violent criminals, drug dealers, out-of-state criminals and repeat offenders should be subject to a “uniform and pretty strict enforcement of the law, getting them off the streets.”
But McMullen said jail is not appropriate for many youthful drug offenders who are caught with small quantities of drugs like marijuana. He said he favors decriminalization of small quantities of marijuana, and sees court diversion and/or counseling as more appropriate methods of dealing with offenders in such circumstances.
McMullen pointed to a study by Maple Leaf Farm, an Underhill-based substance-abuse rehabilitation facility, indicating it costs $90 per day to treat and rehab drug addicts compared to $150 per day to incarcerate drug offenders. And those going through rehab, McMullen argued, are less likely to become repeat offenders than those who are released from jail without treatment.
“I think that over time we should be shifting these resources (from corrections to rehab),” McMullen said.
While he supports the death penalty, McMullen said he would not push for its reinstatement in Vermont.
“My position is, (attorney general) is the highest law office in the land, it should be about fair and even-handed administration of justice,” McMullen said. “It is not a policy job, and shouldn’t be. If the state has decided, through its elected representatives, not to have a death penalty, I don’t think I should be out there advocating for a death penalty.”
McMullen’s other big priority is tort reform — specifically as a way of curtailing the considerable expense of defensive medicine. McMullen said the attorney general should advise the Legislature, and perhaps the Shumlin administration, to take such action. He believes tort reform has the potential to lower the cost of single-payer health care to make it more affordable to taxpayers to underwrite it.
He criticized Sorrell for not placing more scrutiny on “government-related boondoggles,” citing the recent diversion of $17 million from Burlington Telecom by a city official to cover losses sustained by that municipal company.
“The message is you can do anything as long as you don’t put (the money) into your own pocket,” McMullen said.
He also took issue with the attorney general’s office’s pursuit of what he called “Constitutional adventuring” in contesting cases such as Vermont’s ill-fated campaign finance law. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 ruled (on appeal) against the 1997 law that placed guidelines on campaign contributions for in-state races.
McMullen argued that the attorney general should not have pursued the appeal, in spite of having been directed to do so by the Legislature.
“I don’t have to take it on appeal if they didn’t follow my advice, as an independently elected official,” McMullen said. “My position is, if they didn’t follow my advice, I am obliged to follow them at the trial level but I have discretion above that.”
If elected, McMullen also vowed to look into what he said are apparent conflicts of interest in how the state’s wind energy policy is organized and subsidized. He believes renewable energy entrepreneurs have become too powerful in shaping the state’s wind power policy through their contributions to politicians and organizations with direct influence in an industry that he said is translating into unappealing wind farms on Vermont’s pristine ridgelines.
“We are not even in the top 20 states for wind suitability,” McMullen said.
“The developer is almost guaranteed to make money,” McMullen said of wind power developers, noting attractive state subsidies and incentives. “You can understand why we do it, but why is our government doing it in a state that depends on its beauty for economics?”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]