Sheriff's Race Heats Up

Sheriff's Race Heats Up

Accusations and counter-accusations fly at a Del Ray campaign event.

The race for sheriff went into high gear this week with accusations and counter-accusations, an endorsement from the outgoing sheriff and lingering questions about the past. The war of words started Monday afternoon in Del Ray at the red caboose parked in front of Mount Vernon Recreation center, where outgoing Democratic Sheriff James Dunning endorsed Republican candidate Bill Cleveland.

At the afternoon press conference, a brisk autumn breeze brought a sudden chill to the proceedings. But the heat of battle raged when Democratic sheriff candidate Dana Lawhorne arrived at the press conference. He disputed Sheriff Dunning's statement, waving the minutes of a 1997 City Council public hearing in the crisp air. Dunning and Cleveland tried to ignore Lawhorne.

In a rare public appearance, Dunning arrived and distributed a written statement. He has made few public appearances since the 2003 murder of his wife, a crime that has yet to be solved. But his emergence at this week's press conference was an opportunity to endorse Cleveland and oppose Lawhorne.

"Today, it's my pleasure to offer my endorsement," Dunning said. "I think Bill will offer the kind of leadership that the Sheriff's Office needs."

Cleveland spoke next, praising Dunning and vowing to follow in his footsteps.

"I am greatly honored," Cleveland said. "My number one priority will be to keep the accreditation that Sheriff Dunning has worked so hard to earn."

DUNNING ALSO ACCUSED Lawhorne of opposing "pay parity" for sheriff's deputies. His written statement included a pointed allegation about the Alexandria Police Association, which has endorsed Lawhorne.

"When I took this job, the Sheriff's Office was in disarray. Turnover among the sworn professional ranks exceeded 20 percent annually. I immediately endeavored to work with the city and the City Council to address this quiet crisis," Dunning's statement said. "Ultimately, the council approved the policy I fought for to address this dangerous situation — to compensate deputy sheriffs at the same level as the city's police officers. This effort was, and continues to be, vigorously opposed by the police officer's union."

Tim Gleeson, who was president of the Alexandria Police Association during the 1997 dispute, attended the press conference to dispute Dunning's statement and support Lawhorne.

"We never opposed parity — we never even addressed it," said Glesson. "We asked the sheriff to join us in getting a pay scale."

After Dunning and Cleveland ended the press conference, Lawhorne began waving a piece of paper in the air. It was the minutes of an April 7, 1997 public hearing at City Hall where the controversy over pay for sheriff's deputies was mentioned by several speakers.

"He's lying," Lawhorne shouted. "It's right here in the record."

The City Council minutes from 1997 show that Dunning did not speak at the public hearing. But Gleeson and Police Chief Charles Samarra spoke "in support of funds for competitive pay for police officers."

THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY has supported Dunning since he was first elected sheriff in 1985. But during the press conference, Dunning was dismissive of party labels — adding that he thought the race for sheriff should be a non-partisan campaign.

"I happen to be a Democrat, and I'm very proud to be so," Dunning said, adding that his support for Cleveland transcended party ideology. "Bill Cleveland is a man of unassailable integrity, unusual courage and inexhaustible energy."

Local Democratic Party leaders expressed disappointment with the endorsement.

"It's with great sadness that we noted Jim Dunning's endorsement of someone who we believe is not capable of fulfilling the duties of the office of sheriff," said Susan Kellom, chairwoman of the Alexandria Democratic Committee. "Dana Lawhorne is a proven professional who truly understands the requirements of the office."

When asked to critique Lawhorne's candidacy, Dunning demurred.

"I'm not comparing the candidates," he said. "I'll let the people do that."

COMPARING THE CANDIDATES has been difficult for voters. At candidate forums and personal appearances, Cleveland and Lawhorne have been saying different things — especially about events that took place long ago. Both candidates claim to have been involved in the creation of the Warwick Village Neighborhood Watch Program. But Cleveland and Lawhorne give contradictory accounts.

The events leading to the creation of the program have taken a special significance in the campaign because of Cleveland's repeated reference to his role in establishing the program — mentioning it at the beginning of his standard stump speech. For years, Cleveland's campaign literature says that he created the neighborhood watch program in 1979. But at an Oct. 6 forum at Beatley Library, the issue took on new life when the two candidates offered alternative descriptions of the program's creation.

"I'm not trying to take anything away from you, Bill," Lawhorne said. "Just give me some of the credit."

But Cleveland was unwilling to budge. As Lawhorne was talking about his involvement in the creation of the neighborhood watch program, Cleveland began vigorously shaking his head. When it was his turn to start speaking again, Cleveland said that he created the program in 1977.

"I don't think he was a police officer yet," Cleveland said.

But then, several days later, the Cleveland campaign mailed new postcards that seemed to contradict that statement. Among a list of the candidate's qualification is a bullet point that says Cleveland "established Alexandria's first Neighborhood Watch Program in 1979."

"It was started in 1977, and it took us two years to collect the statistics" Cleveland said, adding that he spent 1977 and 1978 collecting records on burglary, larceny and robbery. He said that no documentation of the first two years of the program exists, and that the 1979 reference in his campaign literature indicates the beginning of the second phase of the program.

LAWHORNE WAS ABLE to provide several documents outlining his role in the creation of the Warwick Village Neighborhood Watch Program, including news clippings, letters of accommodation, an award certificate and several internal police memorandum.

A 1980 news clipping from the Alexandria Gazette reports that the program began in June 1979. Lawhorne produced several other documents to bolster his claim about the origins of the program. One of the earliest is a Feb. 21, 1980 letter from Warwick Village Citizens Association President Ron Goldstein to Police Chief Charles Strobel. In it, Lawhorne is praised by name.

"Officer Lawhorne has been instrumental with his hard work and willing cooperation in assisting the Village with its Blockwatch Program," Goldstein wrote.

Lawhorne also produced an internal police memorandum dated April 14, 1980 that praises the young officer — then 22 — for using an informant to make an arrest of a thief in Warwick Village.

"The absence of informants in this case would have left the Department with another unsolved burglary," Strobel wrote. "Officer Lawhorne displayed unique initiative in this investigation from start to finish."

Later that year, the Warwick Village Civic Association awarded Lawhorne a "certificate of appreciation" from the citizens association in recognition of "crime prevention assistance." An image of the award appears on Lawhorne's campaign Web site.

In January 1982, Lawhorne was commended in an employment evaluation for spending volunteer time to help organize Warwick Village's "Blockwatch Program." The next month, Lawhorne received an "Outstanding Police Officer" award from the Alexandria Building Industry Association. In Chief Strobel's Feb. 19, 1982 memo about the presentation of that award, he again praised Lawhorne's "assistance in helping to organize the Warwick Village Neighborhood Watch Program."

AFTER THE PRESS CONFERENCE, Lawhorne supporters mingled with Cleveland supporters. Small talk turned to the weather and parking problems in Del Ray. The lingering controversies about Warwick Village and pay parity provided a sideshow to the unusual public appearance of Dunning.

Commonwealth Attorney S. Randolph Sengel, who appeared at the event in his trademark tan raincoat, predicted Dunning's endorsement was "a one-day story." He said that the dispute over Warwick Village was trivial, adding that voters weren't concerned about what happened in 1979.

"Look at the yard signs that are in people's lawns — not on the right-of-way, but the ones that are actually in the front yards of voters," said Sengel, who has endorsed Lawhorne. "I think it's clear that people have already made up their minds."