Montgomery County sheriff’s race heats up
CHRISTIANSBURG – A three-way race for Montgomery County sheriff may be the most closely watched election in the New River Valley, with unproven rumors circulating about each of the candidates while they say they’re trying to run only on their backgrounds and ideas.
Incumbent Tommy Whitt became so frustrated with the rumors that he retained a lawyer, who warned one woman to stop making certain online comments.
Whitt, a Democrat who has served in the office since 2003, is opposed by longtime Lt. Norman Croy, an independent who retired from the department last year, and Republican George Jackson, an administrative lieutenant with the Virginia Tech Police Department.
The candidates all have resumes that seem to fit the office.
They will get the chance to engage in a debate hosted by the Montgomery County League of Women Voters at 7 p.m. on Oct. 20 at the Montgomery County Government Center.
Meanwhile, in what’s unusual for a local Montgomery County race, the men are targeted in an online-based whisper campaign, with dozens of negative comments about them being posted on Craigslist and other sites. The comments range from allegations regarding financial and domestic problems to stories of personal misconduct.
“It’s just cut me to the core,” Whitt said. “I’ve never been accused of such in my entire life.”
Most of the comments are anonymous, but one woman who has posted about Whitt under her own name received a letter last week from attorney Fred Kellerman.
“She is putting out there that he has committed crimes,” Kellerman said. “It’s ridiculous, unethical, libelous. The only thing they haven’t accused Sheriff Whitt of is kicking little puppies.”
Lisa Lucas Gardner, the woman who received Kellerman’s letter, said she doesn’t believe her comments about Whitt are libelous.
“They are things that I’m hearing from other people. I’m not making them up,” she said. “You hear things, you don’t know if they’re truth or not but you have to sort them out.”
“I’m running on my record as sheriff and all I’m getting is mudslinging,” Whitt said. “I’m not going to engage in it.
“I just want to run a clean campaign, run on what I’ve accomplished as sheriff, and stay away from negativity,” he said.
Jackson said this about the attacks on Whitt: “I think they’re just attempts to bring down the foundation of what Tommy’s been about for the last 35 years.”
Rumors about Jackson being demoted at Tech have been circulating, but he said in an interview that he has never been demoted. In fact, he said, he skipped a rank – going from detective to lieutenant without being a sergeant first.
He said he voted for Whitt in the last two elections. He also said he met with Whitt before kicking off his campaign and told him why he wanted to run.
“I respect him,” he said. “I didn’t want there to be any animosity. He’s served the community for a long time.”
Whitt said he had never even heard of Craigslist until his wife and son started telling him what was posted about him. He hasn’t been the only one subject to rumors posted online. The Rants and Raves section of the Blacksburg Craigslist has been filled for weeks with anonymous posts about all three candidates.
“If all that stuff was true, I should be in jail instead of trying to run the jail,” Croy said, noting that some posts had called him corrupt.
Several anonymous posters have asked readers if they know why Croy, who served the sheriff’s office for nearly 29 years, retired in July 2010 after a short period of administrative leave, during which an internal affairs investigation was conducted.
Croy said he has no plans to reveal what was behind the investigation “to protect other people who don’t need to be drug into it.”
Whitt said if his opponents are willing to sign a release that will open up their personnel and any internal affairs files, he will do the same.
“I stand on my record,” he said.
All three candidates say they have tried to ignore the comments but can’t seem to get away from them. None of them believe the rumors will have a substantial influence on the election.
“The good, hardworking citizens of Montgomery County don’t believe that crap,” Croy said.
“To take your information from anonymous sources on the Internet is just absurd to me,” Kellerman said.
Danny Diggs, president of the Virginia Sheriffs Association and the sheriff of York County, said that “sheriff’s races are almost notorious for having the ability to get nasty.”
Often with local races, he said, people don’t know who the candidates are so there isn’t a great deal of interest. “But everybody seems to know who the sheriff is.”
Diggs said he wasn’t familiar with the Montgomery County race. But he said it’s not unusual for a former or a disgruntled employee to run against an incumbent.
U.S. Marshal Gerald Holt served as the Roanoke County sheriff for 18 years, running unopposed three times and opposed twice.
“It’s a lot of work and you make a lot of sacrifices when you become a candidate,” he said.
“When people submit to becoming a candidate, they are giving up a lot of their personal life.”
Holt said he dealt with negativity from an opponent during only one campaign.
“I just ignored it and I think the voters did too,” he said, noting that the other candidate got less than 23 percent of the votes.
Often, he said, “those kinds of rumors don’t start with the candidates. They can start with someone in the community who doesn’t like one or more of the candidates, as an instigator.
“If it’s absurd,” he said, “the people are going to know that up front.”
During interviews, neither Whitt nor Jackson had anything negative to say about their opponents.
Croy, on the other hand, has several complaints about Whitt.
He was upset that a Whitt sign was placed outside the cemetery where Croy’s father was buried, saying he believed it was a personal attack.
Whitt said it was not, and that a sign had been placed in the same location in past elections. It was removed.
Croy also said Whitt told him years ago he would only run for sheriff twice, which Whitt said is not true.
And Croy said he sees problems with Whitt’s leadership and skills and believes he would do a better job running the sheriff’s office.
“I’ve seen it go downhill,” he said.
He said he thinks Jackson lacks the experience necessary to run a sheriff’s office.
Croy, 52, said his heart and soul are in the sheriff’s office.
“I want to make it better,” he said.
He said he would improve security at the jail, have patrol deputies spend most of their time after dark in subdivisions and business districts instead of in town, and create a unit devoted to investigating technology crimes.
He also said he would like for the inmate work program to include work for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and would consider creating a motorcycle unit.
He said if he is elected, no sheriff’s office employees will be let go.
“I want this more than anyone else does,” said Croy, a firefighter and umpire whose entire law enforcement career was spent working his way up the ranks at the sheriff’s office.
Whitt is a former Marine who was a Christiansburg police officer before joining the sheriff’s office, where he worked his way up the ranks. Whitt said turnover in the department is “next to nothing” – a sign that employees support him.
“The day I forget what it’s like to walk in their shoes and do their job is the day I need to leave here,” he said.
Even in times of increasing budget cuts, he said, the sheriff’s office has been able to offer the same programs.
Like other constitutional offices, the sheriff’s office has seen dramatic cuts in state Compensation Board funding. It has dropped from a 77 percent reimbursement rate in 2002 to a 35 percent rate today, Whitt said, and is likely to take another cut.
“It can be difficult,” he said. “We still have to meet the mandates, but we’re not getting reimbursed.”
Still, he said, “we’ve been busy over the last eight years with accomplishment after accomplishment.”
He cited, among other items, work toward obtaining grants to install in-car cameras and mobile data terminals; a partnership that resulted in the Western Virginia Regional Jail; plans for a Regional 911 system, something Whitt has pushed for for years; and increased efforts to fight the manufacture of methamphetamine.
“As long as the citizens are satisfied with me as sheriff, I will run as long as my health is good and as long as things in the sheriff’s office are running smoothly,” he said.
Whitt, 58, was endorsed last month by the Fraternal Order of Police.
Jackson grew up with a father who was a police officer in New York City. He said he has always known he wanted to be an officer.
“You think about where your career starts and where you could eventually get to,” he said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity.”
Though he’s the youngest, Jackson may have the most diverse training background. An army paratrooper during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, he is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and is trained as a sniper and an underwater recovery diver.
He said he is aware that some say he is running only to get his name out in the community, but that it isn’t true.
“I’m running to win,” he said.
Though he’s running on the GOP ticket, Jackson said he thinks it would make more sense for the office of sheriff not to be tied to a political party.
“You can’t answer the phone and say, ‘911, are you a Democrat or a Republican?’” he said.
By all accounts, Jackson has been busy canvassing neighborhoods late into the evenings, after he gets off work at the Virginia Tech department.
He has a slew of ideas for the sheriff’s office, including holding a quarterly citizens forum with sheriff’s office leaders; implementing programs to address underage drinking, gang activity, unwelcome sexual advances and bullying in schools; and implementing a program through which citizens donate their time and services to the sheriff’s office.
He said he won’t make any campaign promises, and he isn’t worried that negative chatter will affect the election.
“I just don’t pay any attention to it because it’s not important to me,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m focusing my energy on the voters.”
The Roanoke Times