The Clerk of Circuit Court race in Prince William County pits an incumbent with almost eight years in office against a challenger with 26 years of on-the-job training. The campaign, however, has rarely included much discussion of the candidates' records or the issues, instead focusing on a series of public attacks that have been linked to a professional dispute between the two.

Republican incumbent David C. "Dave" Mabie and challenger Joyce M. Sowards (D) have been trading barbs over the fact that Mabie fired Sowards two years into his term over what has been called a "political matter"--a topic about which neither Mabie nor Sowards has elaborated. The truth is that the public may never know why Sowards was removed from her position as deputy clerk after 26 years of working her way through the ranks, but Sowards has made it abundantly clear that she wants back into the office, this time as the boss.

"After working in the office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court for over 26 years, I have the knowledge and experience to perform the duties of the office," Sowards, 57, says in her campaign literature. "I believe that I am the most qualified person . . . to be your next Clerk of the Circuit Court. I know how to do the job."

Mabie, 56, who is finishing his first term in the clerk's office, touts his record as clerk, pointing to his creation of an award-winning dispute resolution program and his efforts to improve technology at the courthouse. He recently announced a "million-dollar" computer overhaul plan for the court, and said that if elected, he plans to bring much of the court's records online to allow remote access.

"It will be the biggest decision a clerk will make in the history of the courts in our county," Mabie said. "We must get the right system and the right technology. It will make life a lot easier for everyone."

With a career of government service, Mabie has worked within the county's criminal justice system since 1970, when he became one of the original members of the Prince William County Police Department. He worked as a detective and later with the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, helping to prepare criminal cases for trial.

Sowards started her career with the court in 1968 when she signed on as a clerk typist. She moved her way up to deputy clerk in 1991, about a year before Mabie took office. In 1994, Mabie asked for her resignation for what he has called political reasons, saying publicly only that he wanted to bring in a deputy of his own choosing. Sowards and Mabie have both held news conferences about the firing, but neither has disclosed the details.

As part of the mudslinging, Sowards backed the Manassas Democratic Committee in its appeal to the Commonwealth's Attorney for an investigation into Mabie's alleged favoritism of F&M Bank, which installed an ATM at the courthouse about three years ago.

The office referred the investigation to an outside prosecutor, but Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert (D) said it is unlikely that Mabie broke the law. Mabie says F&M, which contributed to his campaign, was the only bank willing to install an ATM at the courthouse, adding that his office's relationship with F&M goes back at least five years.

Mabie then fired back at Sowards, asking her to drop a civil lawsuit she filed against a Mormon Church for breach of contract. Sowards said that she and the church, which had contracted to pay her for land it eventually didn't need, are in the process of settling out of court.

Self-employed as owner of J&C Business Services and a 37-year resident of Prince William County, Sowards has said she would focus on making the court more customer-friendly and would ensure that the county's court records are kept safe and secure. Although she has been vague on specific projects she'd like to see come to fruition--she has said she would work with staff members to see "what improvements are necessary"--she said she would like to see the creation of a satellite office elsewhere in the county to make it easier for residents to do business with the office.