After eight years as Alexandria's sheriff, Michael E. Norris is hoping that this year will be better than last.

By any account, 1985 was not an easy year for Norris, the 36-year-old Republican lawman replaced yesterday by James H. (Jim) Dunning. Dunning, the former assistant administrator of a federal drug program, defeated Norris in a bitter election Nov. 5.

Last year Norris was accused of drug use, had his sexuality debated in public, and accepted a campaign contribution from a man who does business with the Alexandria jail.

"I was called everything except a human being," said Norris in a recent interview. "What happened in this city in the past year would be far beyond 'The Twilight Zone.' "

For much of 1985, Alexandria's City Hall was torn apart by a grand jury investigation into allegations that Charles Strobel, the director of public safety, cut short a police investigation into allegations that Norris had used drugs.

The allegations were unfounded, said a special grand jury that exonerated all parties in a sharply worded report chastising the city's press for sensationalism. Norris, who kept a thick stack of newspaper clippings detailing his various controversies, says he was hurt badly by the publicity.

"The election was a personality contest," he said. "My personality has come under some pretty heavy scrutiny, and there are some people who will always think that if there is smoke there's fire.

"The star wasn't pinned on me for life, so if the people of Alexandria think they need something different, they have their wish."

Norris leaves an office that even his most vocal critics agree is in much better shape than it was when he was elected to his first term in 1977. Deputy sheriff positions and other jobs had been doled out on a patronage basis, and state corrections officials had thought little of the way the city's antiquated jail was being run.

"I have been here for 21 years," said Deputy Sheriff Frank Cherry. "This place was ridiculous before Mike arrived. It wasn't a jail, it was a club. He totally changed the place around. He brought it into the modern world."

Today, the sheriff's office runs on a $4 million budget and oversees security at the city courthouse, runs the jail and has more than 80 deputy sheriffs who serve about 65,000 court papers each year.

Norris certainly had a penchant for blunt speech and actions that raised many eyebrows. He proposed transporting prisoners around Virginia in a plane that the city would purchase, an idea that Dunning quickly dubbed "Norris' Air Force" and attacked repeatedly during the campaign.

Norris also proposed that the new city correctional facility under construction in the Cameron Valley area include a floor that could be rented to the U.S. Marshal's Service for use by federal prisoners, another of his ideas that met with blank stares at City Council meetings.

And he disturbed others by accepting a campaign contribution from the private firm that supplies health care services to the jail.

But what Norris says was his most misunderstood moment came in 1984 when he told a Washington Post reporter that he spent a lot of time with gay friends and went to dances with some in Washington.

From the day that interview appeared, Norris' sexual preference became a frequent topic of conversation in the city.

"I am a free man now, so I don't want to talk about it," Norris said in an interview. "No matter what I say about my sex life it comes across the wrong way. If people knew how boring my life is, they'd yawn."

Dunning, who ran as an independent and beat Norris with almost 60 percent of the vote, says that he is not going to make big changes in the office.

"I think my job is to go in there and see how people work," said Dunning. "It would do no good for anybody to come in with a preconceived set of notions."

Dunning and Norris present contrasts that clearly will affect the way the office is run. Dunning, 35, a Democrat who ran as an independent because of the Hatch Act, says he has political ambitions; Norris, a maverick Republican, says he has no ambition to seek political office.

Norris, a native of Portsmouth, will spend much of the month consulting on community corrections for the Justice Department. He says that he has received several interesting job offers but is thinking over the direction his career should take. If he can, he said, he would like to stay in corrections.

And he says he wants to stay tuned to what goes on in Alexandria.

"Oh, I want to see what they will do with the office and in the city," he said in the sheriff's office, surrounded by cartons of books. "But I'm honestly glad to be out of it now. I never should have run this time around. I didn't have a chance.

"The thing that really bothered me is that nobody ever talked to me before the mud was in the air. I never even got a decent chance to lie. Sometimes I would pick up the papers and read all this stuff, and I would just laugh. It seemed so funny. But it was me they were talking about."