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Votes

There’s a New Sheriff in Town

Dana Lawhorne vows to solve overcrowding problem at the prison.

In his first campaign for elected office, Dana Lawhorne swept most of the city’s voters with 58 percent of the vote. His opponent, Bill Cleveland, took only three precincts: Ladray Senior Building, City Hall and the Lee Center. All the other precincts went with Lawhorne.

"That’s 21 out of 24 precincts," said Lauren Smith, who managed Lawhorne’s campaign. "Not bad for a first-time candidate."

The race to be Alexandria’s next sheriff involved months of campaigning, two well-known candidates with clashing personalities and a battling roster of endorsements. In the end, Democratic candidate Dana Lawhorne ended up with more endorsements and ultimately more votes.

"Did I win?" Lawhorne asked a room of supporters after the election results were posted on the city’s Website. They responded loudly, celebrating the conclusion of a hard-fought campaign and raising a toast to Lawhorne. Commonwealth Attorney Randy Sengel hugged the sheriff-elect and congratulated him on his victorious campaign.

"I figured if I stood next to this guy long enough, I’d win," Lawhorne said.

THE ALEXANDRIA SHERIFF has a wide range of duties, and Lawhorne says that he is ready to provide leadership across a host of issues. His Republican opponent, Bill Cleveland, campaigned on issues that were distant to the duties of the office, such as creating a gang-crime intervention unit. Yet Lawhorne’s campaign focused on existing duties of the office. The clashing views formed a key difference between the candidates.

"If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," Cleveland said at a Beatley Library debate.

Lawhorne thinks that some aspects of the sheriff’s office are broke, and his election represents a mandate to fix those problems. His first objective is to fix the overcrowding problem at the Alexandria Detention Center. In recent years, the jail has been home to several celebrity inmates: New York Times reporter Judith Miller, suspected terrorist Zacharias Moussaoui and American Taliban John Walker Lindh.

According to the jail’s guidelines, its prisoners should have a sentence of fewer than two years. For this reason, it houses many defendants who are awaiting trial. The detention center has an average daily population of 450, and its population has been steadily increasing for several years. In 2002, the detention center had an average daily population of 430 — that’s 20 more prisoners in the past three years.

"My first priority is to do something about the jail," Lawhorne said. "It was built to house 343 inmates, but we’ve got 450 inmates there on an average day."

In Fiscal Year 2006, City Council budgeted for 240,500 prisoners. That’s 38,862 more prisoners than Fiscal Year 2002, when City Council budgeted for 201,638 prisoners. In that time, the direct operating cost of housing inmates has risen from $48 to $51.

"The Sheriff’s Office needs more space," said Lawhorne, adding that he wants to expand into the former Police Headquarters. "We could use that space to solve the overcrowding problem."

Another aspect of the office that Lawhorne has pledged to change concerns labor issues. Under the outgoing sheriff, deputies were discouraged from unionizing. While the police had a powerful union that would advocate for better pay before City Council, sheriff’s deputies had no one to advocate for their pay — and Sheriff Jim Dunning rarely came to council meetings to advocate on their behalf.

As a result, City Council members say, they often felt pressured to provide pay parity for the Sheriff’s Office. But the perception at City Hall was that the sheriff’s deputies were benefiting from the Alexandria Police Association. Now, with Lawhorne’s support, deputies will be encouraged to form their own union.

"I think Dana will be an outstanding advocate for his staff," said Vice Mayor Del Pepper. "He’ll be at the City Council meetings fighting for his people, and you can count on that."

THE YEARLONG CAMPAIGN to become the city’s next sheriff brought a host of endorsements, accusations and counter-accusations. As each side vied for support. Lawhorne was endorsed by a powerful juggernaut of local leaders. At a Halloween press conference, Lawhorne supporters came to the Alexandria Courthouse to stand by their candidate. The coalition included former mayors, City Council members, members of the General Assembly and a handful of former elected officials who remain active in local politics.

Cleveland also had several endorsements, and his campaign staged two press conferences in October to show off his notable supporters. The first was Michael Steele, the Republican lieutenant governor of Maryland. The second was Sheriff Jim Dunning, the reclusive outgoing Democratic sheriff who made a rare public appearance to endorse the Republican candidate.

"It’s been an interesting race because there has been defections on both sides," said Connie Ring, who was chairman of the Alexandria Republican City Committee from 1962 to 1968. "That doesn’t happen very often."

In the end, Ring said, Lawhorne won because he was able to translate his experience with the Alexandria Police Department into an effective campaign strategy.

"Dana’s principal argument concerned his experience with the police and the leadership that he can bring to the Sheriff’s Office," Ring said. "Dana had direct experience working in the city, and I think that helped him a great deal in the election."

Others agreed that Lawhorne’s reputation as a lifelong resident of the city and a detective gave him the edge that he needed to win his first elected office — even against a candidate who had years of experience running successful local elections.

"I think that Dana demonstrated that his roots were very deep," said City Councilman Rob Krupicka. "That clearly paid off for him."