Alexandria Sheriff Michael E. Norris says he can't wait for Tuesday's elections.
"For one thing, the politics will be over and we can all go back to doing our jobs," said Norris, a controversial Republican who is battling hard to win a third term against independent opponent James H. Dunning. "And, of course, victory is always nice."
When the campaign started after Labor Day, most Norris supporters were confident of that victory. Today a number say they are not ready to predict the outcome.
"There's a real choice," said Republican state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. of Alexandria. "Do you vote on Mike's performance as sheriff -- which has been outstanding -- or do you get entangled in the controversy this city was so wrapped up in for the past year?"
Mitchell was referring the issue that wracked Alexandria City Hall for much of last year, allegations that city police mishandled a drug investigation at a restaurant that Norris frequented. A special grand jury investigated the matter and found the charges baseless.
Since then the outspoken Norris, 37, a Republican in a largely Democratic city, had managed to stay out of the controversy.
But earlier this month, that calm, so uncharacteristic of his eight years in office, began to slip away.
First, it was disclosed that Norris, who runs the city jail, had accepted a $1,500 campaign contribution from the president of a firm that provides health services to the inmates. Then, last week, it was revealed that a woman who worked for six weeks this summer in the sheriff's office was wanted on felony charges in Gastonia, N.C.
Norris has said there was nothing wrong with the contribution (the City Council awards the jail health care contract) and that "we did everything right" in the case of the clerk, who disappeared after being questioned by city police. The city personnel office is responsible for background checks on employes in the sheriff's office, Norris said.
Dunning, 35, who runs a federal probation program and therefore cannot seek the $58,000-a-year job as either a Democrat or Republican, has hit hard at both issues. He said the incidents show that Norris is not on top of what is happening in his office and he has repeatedly questioned the propriety of the sheriff accepting money from a contractor who does business with his jail.
"He says he doesn't know who gave him the money or exactly when," Dunning told the packed house at on recent civic association meeting. "Well, all I can say to that is if anybody in this room gives me $1,500 I won't forget you."
While Norris has been regarded as an innovative law officer, his life style had caused controversy ever since he told a newspaper reporter that he socialized with gay friends. When Norris was challenged earlier this year in a Republican primary, the issue was one of personality. His opponent in that race, Ed Clark, acknowledged that "Mike is an outstanding sheriff."
"I wonder if Norris has become one of those national all-stars who doesn't even do much for the home town anymore?" said Dunning. He has said that the sheriff pays more attention to jail philosophy than to the needs of the local people.
Norris says that the interests are compatible, and that he is a "completely full-time sheriff."
"I think everyone agrees that this community has foucused itself on the race," said Alexandria prosecutor John Kloch, a Democrat who is unopposed Tuesday in his bid for reelection. "Mike, by his own admission, creates many of the issues in the campaign."
Dunning has a much lower profile. He recently had to switch his campaign posters from "Dunning is Running," to "Dunning for Sheriff," because too few people knew what he was running for.
The Alexandria sheriff oversees a staff of 80 deputies, manages security at the city courthouse, serves more than 65,000 court papers each year, and has a $4 million annual budget to run the city jail.