Republican gubernatorial candidate Wyatt B. Durrette tried his hand yesterday at what has long been a favorite sport of Northern Virginia politicians: making political hay out of the controversial Lorton Reformatory in southern Fairfax County.
At a news conference outside the facility, Durrette stood side by side with perhaps the most accomplished Lorton-basher of all -- Fairfax board Chairman John F. Herrity -- to criticize the prison and his opponent, Democrat Gerald L. Baliles.
Durrette said that Baliles' continuing indifference to the problems at Lorton symbolizes his lack of concern with Northern Virginia generally.
"Lorton has been a continuing problem. Yet my opponent has not done anything, or had anything to say about it, for three years . . . . He does not have an understanding of this region," Durrette said at the roadside conference, only yards away from Lorton's armed guard towers.
But local Democrats were quick to point out that the District-run prison is a federal responsibility, rather than a state one.
"You can't regulate property that belongs to a government that is above you," said Fairfax Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale). " Durrette's attacks are smoke without substance. You can tell a big lie and hope that some people will believe it, but the fact is that Lorton rests with Uncle Sam."
Baliles aides yesterday scoffed at Durrette's claim that Baliles lacks concern for Northern Virginia.
"Gerry has spent a lot of time in Northern Virginia," said Alan Albert, a policy adviser to Baliles. "To take this relatively obscure issue and say that therefore Baliles lacks sensitivity to Northern Virginia -- I don't think anyone will buy it."
Durrette's statements came on the heels of a controversy over Lorton last week, when a riot broke out in which 17 prisoners and two guards were injured. Herrity and others accused the District of attempting to cover up the incident by initially telling Fairfax authorities only that a "peaceful demonstration" had occurred.
Durrette said that if elected governor, he would lobby Congress to see that any expenses Fairfax County incurred because of Lorton would be reimbursed by the federal government. He also said that he would begin discussions aimed at eventually moving the prison out of Virginia.
Albert responded yesterday that Baliles would also support reimbursement for Fairfax County. "Gerry Baliles would be delighted if we could pick Lorton up and move it out of Virginia. I don't think that it serves any constructive purpose to suggest that this could be done anytime soon."
Durrette and Herrity, joined by Del. Frank Medico (R-Fairfax), said that their criticism of Baliles on the Lorton issue began in 1983, when Medico wrote then-Attorney General Baliles expressing concern about the facility. Baliles chided Medico in his response at the time, saying that "the Lorton complex has frequently been raised as an issue in election years."
"To say that this is an election year is to miss the point," Durrette said yesterday.
But the response from Baliles' campaign was that Durrette is only now championing the Lorton issue because of charges by some Democratic commonwealth attorneys, including Fairfax County's Robert F. Horan, that Durrette is weak on crime.
"I think it is fair to say that his interest in this issue is of recent vintage," Albert said.