Republican Del. John A. Rollison III and his Democratic opponent, George N. Dowd, are engaged in spirited sparring in their Nov. 3 rematch for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Two years ago when they first ran against each other, they conducted such a gentlemanly campaign they sometimes seemed bent on putting voters to sleep in the 52nd House District in Prince William County.
A record low number of voters turned out, and Rollison won the district by only 118 votes of 7,574 cast.
Dowd, 58, an attorney who formerly worked on Capitol Hill and now practices law in Dumfries, has taken the offensive, hammering away this month at his 37-year-old opponent's performance in Richmond. Dowd has emphasized a survey of legislative effectiveness made this year by The Norfolk Virginian Pilot and The Ledger Star in which 489 lawmakers, state and local officials, lobbyists and reporters were questioned. Rollison was ranked 93rd in the poll.
"Rollison holds the distinction of having the lowest effectiveness rating anyone from Prince William County ever has," said Dowd.
Rollison's reply is that at the time of the survey, he was 100th in seniority in the House and a member of the minority party. (He has since moved to 96th in seniority.) Rollison, who owns a tire sales and auto repair business in Prince William County, said that it is difficult for members of the minority party in Richmond to do well in the survey. "I think it's a false issue," he said. "In the survey I did better than two Republicans who were not freshmen.
"I've started at the bottom and I'm working my way up," said Rollison. "No member has ever avoided being a freshman."
Dowd is particularly critical of a bill Rollison pushed through the General Assembly that allows the county to prorate the personal property tax based on the number of months residents have owned their boats and cars before Jan. 1.
The county is expected to collect an additional $1.4 million with the proration system, "but it will cost $400,000 to hire the extra personnel to do that," said Dowd.
Dowd is among several candidates from the two parties in Prince William who oppose the personal property tax, from which the county derives $21 million in revenue.
"I would like to see the tax either abolished or drastically modified, either in the rate or in the way it is collected" in one lump sum each fall, Dowd said.
Dowd's alternative would be to raise the property tax rate or promote state legislation allowing the county to impose an array of taxes.
Excise taxes on restaurant meals and tobacco products and impact fees on developers are among those he mentions.
Rollison says the proposed substitutes would raise only a fraction of the revenue the personal property tax brings.
Dowd and Rollison are also at odds on how best to manage development in the county. Dowd favors impact fees on developers to cover some of the costs of providing additional public services to new residents. Rollison opposes those fees.
Also, Dowd would impose a real estate transfer tax on each seller of property. Again, Rollison opposes such a measure.
The tax issues aside, it is Rollison's legislative record that draws most of Dowd's fire. For example, Rollison was successful in passing legislation that requires the state to test the quality of water from private wells. Dowd says that this is "not too relevant to people" in the 52nd District.
The district is a U-shaped chunk of Prince William composed of communities from Woodbridge south along the Potomac River to the Stafford County line; a sizable portion of Prince William's southern edge, including the Quantico Marine base, and a wedge of central Prince William south of Manassas.
Most of the county's wells lie in central and western Prince William, according to Rollison. But he sees a larger issue than wells.
"We've had problems with groundwater contamination," most of it from landfills, said Rollison. "Once it occurs, it is almost impossible to remove from the soil."
The well testing measure, which is financed by $15,000 from the state, matching funds from the federal government and $10,000 in county funds, will "stop major pollution before it happens" by indicating where soil conditions are best for landfills, he said.
Rollison calls himself an environmentalist, and in the most recent session of the legislature he introduced a tree conservation ordinance supported by 15 other Northern Virginia legislators.
The measure failed but produced much merriment during debate in the House, including a dramatic reading of the definition of a tree as "a self-supporting woody plant." Rollison received a corn plant by his desk on the floor of the house.
"His intention was fine," said Dowd. "But his follow-through was not effective. The ridicule he suffered must have contributed to his poor rating."
Rollison says he is undeterred and undamaged by Dowd's attacks, and the two men maintain there is no personal animosity between them.
Dowd says he is running because he believes that there should be at least two candidates in every race. He also points out that if he wins, he would be a member of the majority party.
"The Democrats have controlled the General Assembly for 100 years," he said. "If that's the way they play ball, you want someone who can at least get up to bat."
"You have to answer the question 'why are you running?' every day," said Rollison. "I do have a stake in Prince William County, and I want something for my children . . . . I really want to make a difference, to make this a better community."
Each candidate hopes to raise about $20,000. Rollison says he has about $16,000. Dowd has about $12,000; "I think we'll be lucky to get to $15,000," he said. But Dowd says he is encouraged by his support, which includes the AFL-CIO. If he loses, he says, this will be his last race.