In the 241 years that voters have been electing clerks of the Fairfax County Circuit Court, a Republican has never been voted into the job.
This year the GOP is backing a candidate used to pounding against Democratic bastions -- former state delegate Warren E. Barry, a 14-year veteran of the General Assembly, who will try to snap the opposition's hold on the powerful position that controls the day-to-day machinery of the county courthouse.
The contest between Barry and Democratic incumbent James E. Hoofnagle, according to both candidates, is a campaign with virtually no issues. It is more a race that pits the power of a closely knit courthouse community against the name-recognition and political ties of a onetime senior state legislator.
At stake is a low-profile, $63,000-a-year job overseeing the large, busy Circuit Court's inner workings -- a post that some county residents don't even know exists.
Hoofnagle, 71, a retired Foreign Service officer with a family name that is deeply entrenched in Fairfax County politics, has built a powerful following in legal and political circles during his first eight-year term.
That, says Barry, is the Republican challenger's toughest obstacle.
"I'm not running against Hoofnagle," Barry said. "I'm running against a crowd, the 'in' crowd, the courthouse crowd."
But Barry, 50, hasn't spent his time in the House of Delegates, including seven years as minority whip, without building his own political following. His geographical voting base has been drastically eroded by redistricting, however, and this will be the first time since 1969 that he has sought a countywide elected position. Last year he was elected from the 42nd District House District, a small finger of southern Fairfax County that encompasses Fort Belvoir and Lorton reformatory.
Why would a politician with long exposure in the General Assembly be interested in a low-profile, nuts-and-bolts court clerk's job?
"I have had 15 campaigns in 15 years; I had almost no personal life," Barry said. "I was on the road to Richmond all the time. I wanted to do something where I wouldn't find myself on the campaign trail in two years and still remain in public service, but not at the same degree of intensity."
When the Republican Party was trying to find a candidate with name recognition to run for clerk, Barry said they came to him: "The story was that Hoofnagle was going to retire."
Hoofnagle said he considered retiring -- briefly. He waited for weeks before announcing his reelection bid earlier this year. "I had eight good years," he said. "There are a lot of things I'd like to do, such as traveling." But when friends in the Democratic Party asked him to seek a second term, Hoofnagle said he agreed.
Some Fairfax judges and county officials give Hoofnagle much of the credit for modernizing the court's procedures and introducing computer technology into tradition-bound record-keeping systems. "It's always easy to leave things the way they are," he said. "It's tough to make changes."
Barry doesn't share in the praise. "He didn't invent computers," said Barry, adding, "His predecessor fought modernizing the clerk's office. Anybody who went into that office had to go to computers."
Both candidates said they will move the courthouse even further into the computer age, if elected to the position.
Hoofnagle said one of his primary reasons for seeking reelection is that the job of computerization "is only half done." If elected, he said he would work to extend the courthouse computer services to law offices and title companies, saving frequent users trips to the courthouse. Barry makes the same promise.
Suggestions have surfaced at candidate forums that Hoofnagle is in poor physical condition and may be seeking the second term for the benefit of the Democratic Party, intending to retire after a couple of years -- and thereby allowing the chief circuit judge to appoint a Democratic replacement. "I have no such thoughts," said Hoofnagle, bristling at the suggestion. "I wouldn't go through a campaign like this with the idea of protecting it the job for somebody else."
As to his health, Hoofnagle said, "I have more strength than any other candidate I know." He said he has completely recuperated from illnesses he incurred four years ago, including surgery to remove his gall bladder.
Meanwhile, Hoofnagle has rallied strong campaign support from key members of the county legal community. Dexter Odin, a prominent lawyer in the county, is treasurer of his campaign. Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., a Democrat unopposed to retain his own elected position, served as master of ceremonies at Hoofnagle's campaign kickoff garden party last Sunday.
Barry is drawing on his longtime political supporters and business contacts in his campaign and has already begun dotting major county roadways with his blue and gold "Warren E. Barry for Clerk of Court" posters.
A businessman since he gave up teaching in 1964, Barry owns a Springfield restaurant, "Uncle Sam's." Another business, Barry Associates, manages local shopping malls, and he owns five gasoline stations with a former legislative colleague, Democratic state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw of Annandale.
Barry said his background in business administration qualifies him for the mostly administrative clerk's job.
Both candidates have been stumping on the campaign trail nightly and each estimates his campaign will cost about $40,000 -- if only to let those outside legal and political circles know they are seeking the little-publicized post.
"The constituency," Barry said, "is in a frenzy of apathy over these elections."