Few races this election season have been as contentious and imprecise as the one for sheriff.
With two high-profile figures pitted against each other, the campaign for the Prince William County sheriff’s post has been marked by name-calling, accusations and shifting positions.
Incumbent two-term Sheriff E. Lee Stoffregen III, 52, and his Republican rival Glendell Hill, the 56-year-old superintendent of the regional jail, are locked in the close race with more at stake than who occupies the office.
On the surface, the most contentious issue seems simple: The sheriff is charged by the Virginia constitution with protecting the courthouse and serving papers.
But under the surface, a power struggle is in full swing. The incumbent Stoffregen goes beyond his mandate, and he and Hill spar frequently about how much the department should cooperate with the county police department and area politicians.
If Hill wins, it will be a major blow to Democrats, who rely on Stoffregen’s popularity, money and momentum in a county where the majority of people vote Republican.
Stoffregen, an entrenched Democrat with reserves of cash and party-backing, pledged last year to use his war-chest to oust the supervisors that opposed his attempts to apply for grants and to get additional deputies. He has contributed to the local party and candidates he favors.
He gave $500 of his $250,000 reserve to Rick Coplen, candidate for board chairman. Coplen is running against incumbent Sean T. Connaughton, the Republican who has emerged as the staunchest challenger of Stoffregen’s law enforcement initiatives.
Backed by the county’s GOP, with Connaughton at the helm, Hill is the first formidable opponent Republican candidate the incumbent has encountered.
Stoffregen faced a tough opponent in the primary from political newcomer and fellow Democrat John Collier, a county police lieutenant. Collier fared well in the David and Goliath-like June primary, and the primary race distracted Stoffregen from the general election campaign. Hill had no intra-party opponent.
Hill, who has wide name recognition, is well-respected by area police officers and politicians.
Stoffregen had nothing but kind words about Hill when it was rumored he might a run. But after Hill’s decision, the gloves came off.
Aside from their personalities, there is little political distinction between the two men.
Both tout the programs currently in place; both want to give more law enforcement power to deputies.
Hill frequently criticizes Stoffregen while telling the area’s 197,600 voters that the incumbent uses his office for political gain.
“I have a problem when we use public safety to get exposure,” he said at debate in Manassas in early September.
Stoffregen once criticized Hill’s ability to make difficult decisions, claiming at his campaign announcement that the superintendent’s ” ‘go along to get along’ management style is perfect for those county government officials who require puppets for managers.”
It was a reference to Connaughton that caught the ire of the county’s Republican party. The local party chairman demanded an apology that never came.
Stoffregen claims he has the experience needed to be sheriff and Hill does not. He also said the regional jail staff is not as well trained as are deputy sheriffs.
Stoffregen continues to tout his efforts to increase his office’s power at campaign events, claiming the programs are paid for entirely with grant money and are carried out “at no cost to the taxpayers.”
His frequent mantra has been that in a time of terrorism, sniper attacks and other disasters, why would any community not want more, free public safety?
But Stoffregen has twice conceded that his programs are not entirely free. Ancillary costs such as vehicle maintenance, paperwork processing and overtime pay for deputies who testify after making arrests, are part of the burden taxpayers must bear.
An independent study commissioned by the county supervisors and cited frequently by the sheriff while he is stumping, says the office needs 14 new deputies just to accomplish its core duties.
Sheriff’s office Administrative Division Chief Judy Burke said the programs continue because when the workload increases, reserve and auxiliary deputies fill in at the courthouse, enabling paid deputies to enforce laws on the streets. Some of the sheriff’s initiatives include: funeral escorts, a middle school mentor program, the Ident-A-Child program, a gun safety lock program and a search and rescue team.
For months Hill criticized Stoffregen’s intensive efforts to police the county and said, if elected, he would focus only on the sheriff’s constitutional charge. He later backtracked at a Sept. 9 debate sponsored by the Manassas Taxpayer’s Alliance.
“I want deputy sheriffs to get involved on the street,” he said that night, claiming to have always believed as much. This month he said he feels deputies should get involved only with the cooperation of police officers.
Hill has pledged to launch a new era of harmony with the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and police.
Stoffregen claims that controversy is part of the job. Tension between law enforcement agencies is good for the public, he said during the primary campaign.
He was taught by his parents to “fight like hell” for what’s right, he said during a speech early this year.
And fighting is what Stoffregen has been doing to expand the powers of his office.
His approach to law enforcement initiatives not included in his mandate has riled government and police officials who feel the sheriff frequently steps beyond his bounds.
His deputies raced to the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack and the scene of a Manassas-area sniper murder last year. He has been accused of providing some of the same services as county police to bolster his political image. Others have accused him of trying to create his own empire.
Hill did not respond to several calls Wednesday and Thursday for comments for this story.
Staff writer Daniel Drew can be reached at (703) 878-8065.