On Oct. 18, 2016, Chesterfield County’s treasurer and commissioner of the revenue both announced they were leaving elective office early.
The highest-ranking deputy in each of their offices took over in the interim and ran to replace their predecessors in elections the following year. One prevailed.
The other was the lone interim to fail in Chesterfield elections dating to 1991 in which a deputy picked to lead an office fought to keep it.
It’s been a path to success in Chesterfield in recent decades that county watchdogs, candidates and political observers say is orchestrated by design; a system of patronage that gives an advantage to the unelected officials who’ve been keeping a seat warm until voters can weigh in.
Election officials said they can’t determine just how common a situation it is. The state Department of Elections doesn’t track the information, and neither does Chesterfield.
But a Richmond Times-Dispatch review of county election results and news coverage dating to 1991 determined that of the at least six times in 28 years it’s happened, the interim won all but once. Three of those six contests occurred in the past five years. By comparison, the same review found only four similar cases in the rest of the Richmond region since 1991.
“It does seem that it is happening quite a bit. That does seem notable,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “That makes sense intuitively because the person who is leaving may want their favorite deputy or friend to replace them.”
A similar dynamic is at play now in a special election to replace former Chesterfield Commonwealth’s Attorney William Davenport, who stepped down June 30 after 30 years on the job and tapped his chief deputy as his successor.
Another senior staffer, John Childrey, is asking voters to let him serve out the remainder of Davenport’s term, which the retiring prosecutor has said he sought knowing he’d leave early.
“I’m 70 years old. I have six children and 20 grandchildren. I have a wife of 52 years. I’ve been here for 30½ years,” he said in April, when he announced his departure. “I’ve been grooming folks in my office to take over and make sure we can be a great commonwealth’s attorney’s office. I want to leave it in real good shape.”
Elected officials argue the timing isn’t politically motivated, that chief deputies are well-suited to carry the work forward and that reasons for stepping down early are varied.
“For someone to think that my retirement was politically motivated rubs me the wrong way,” said former Sheriff Dennis Proffitt, who left two years early after his then-girlfriend was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Proffitt himself became sheriff when the previous sheriff resigned. He was a hand-picked successor, won election after serving on an interim basis, and then he later chose a hand-picked successor. “I think being who I was helped me win.”
It doesn’t look good, said Bob Olsen, an unsuccessful candidate for elective office who now leads a local environmental group.
“They’re in office and the next election they can run as the incumbent. It’s almost like they can believe they can create a dynasty type of system,” Olsen said.
Heading up an office even on an interim basis can give a candidate an upper hand, though not as large an advantage an elected incumbent would experience, said Skelley at U.Va.
“In general, [elected incumbents have] name recognition, money, and the fact that you’ve won the election,” Skelley said. “I think you can say generally, based on appointed incumbents or successor incumbents in higher level races, that they do enjoy some degree of incumbent advantage, but not as strong as a regular incumbent. I think there is some advantage because there is time for people to familiarize themselves with the person.”
It’s not clear exactly how many times this has happened. The clerk of the Board of Supervisors, Chesterfield voter registrar and state Department of Elections said they aren’t able to determine how many times elected officials have left their posts early.
Records that are available show it’s happened in each of the past two leadership changes in Chesterfield’s offices of the treasurer, sheriff and commissioner of the revenue.
Clarence Williams retired early as sheriff in 2007, four months before a county general election. He had served as sheriff for 17 years. Williams named Proffitt, a former county police supervisor, as his successor. Voters eventually elected Proffitt as sheriff.
Proffitt said Thursday that Williams surprised him when he told him he was going to retire.
“He meant to finish out that term. He surprised me. So, you know, honestly, it was never politically motivated. And I guess it looks that way,” Proffitt said.
Knowing he needed to set up a successor after the cancer diagnosis, Proffitt said he had brought Karl Leonard on board about four months prior on a part-time basis, then promoted him to full-time undersheriff, the department’s No. 2 position.
“When you are in a leadership role, your job is to find the right person to move it forward,” Proffitt said.
When Proffitt left office in 2014, Leonard stepped into the role. Voters then elected Leonard sheriff later that year.
“I think being who I was helped me win. I think that is what helped Karl win. I think the work we did in the community for 30 years is what made us the favorites,” Proffitt said.
Leonard is currently the sheriff.
“I think to expect people to finish out their term every time or that there is some underlying motive is just wrong,” said Leonard, whose term expires in December 2019. “You can’t predict what you are going to do the next four years. But you are asking elected officials to do just that. To be a good organization … you always have to have a succession of command plan.”
Leonard acknowledged that he benefited in the election from having already filled the role as sheriff, but said that the process of free and fair elections means that the decision is in voters’ hands.
“I think it does give them the upper hand,” Leonard said, referring to interim appointees. “But it should give them the upper hand because they are doing the very job you are looking for someone to do. And I would say that as a voter, you would want the most experienced individual to take over the job.”
The situation has repeated itself with the past two county treasurers. Mary Arline McGuire, first elected in 1979, served three terms before retiring in the summer of 1991. She gave different reasons for her early departure.
In July 1991, she dismissed the notion that she was stepping down just so her second in command, Richard Cordle, would have the advantage of being the incumbent in the fall election.
She told the Richmond Times-Dispatch then that she left a half-year early to take care of her 87-year-old mother. She said she also needed to organize moving to a new house in Brandermill with her husband.
Several months earlier, she told the newspaper that she decided not to wait for November’s election because her early departure would avoid having two audits in the same year.
Cordle took over in an interim status at a time when the treasurer’s office oversaw $130 million worth of county investments in addition to collecting taxes. McGuire served as treasurer of Cordle’s campaign committee. He was elected in 1991.
Cordle retired early in January 2017, announcing his departure the same day as the commissioner of the revenue. His chief deputy, Carey Adams, temporarily took the reins and is now serving as treasurer after being elected in November 2017.
Adams said he didn’t have a comment about advantages that appointees might have in elections.
“I think it’s incumbent on whoever leaves the office to see that there are qualified people to take over whether that is because of retirement, health issue, doesn’t matter the situation there,” Adams said.
“I felt that I had experience to take over. I wasn’t just walking in off the street. I think people understood that and whether I ran for the position or not, they felt that I could run the office proficiently.”
In the commissioner of the revenue’s office, which assesses county taxes, processes state income tax returns and administers real estate tax relief programs, each of the previous two elected leaders left office and turned the job over to a second in command who then ran for election.
Joseph Horbal assumed the position after his predecessor left early in 2003. He was later elected and began serving his first term in January 2004.
Thirteen years later, in 2016, Horbal announced that he was vacating his elected office early the same day as Cordle, the treasurer.
Horbal’s highest-ranking deputy, Republican Timothy McPeters, was named the interim commissioner of the revenue, giving him nearly a year as head of the office before the November 2017 general election. Horbal endorsed McPeters in that election.
But Democrat Jenefer Hughes won 55 percent of the vote in 2017 for a surprising victory over McPeters in a county that heavily favors Republicans.
“I ran because I felt that the citizens of Chesterfield County should have a choice,” Hughes said the night she won.
That same month, McPeters, who lost the election against Hughes, was named chief deputy treasurer by Carey Adams, who had just been elected as treasurer.
In three other localities within the Richmond region since 1991, the situation happened at least four other times for those same offices. Unlike Chesterfield, the situation wouldn’t apply to some of the offices because they are appointed rather than elected positions.
Two instances occurred in the court clerk’s office in Richmond. Iva Purdy, the longtime clerk of court, left in November 1994, about a year before her term expired. Her chief deputy, Bevill Dean, was appointed clerk of court and went on to serve 20 years in that position. Dean left in December 2013, allowing Edward Jewett to serve as interim clerk before being elected about a year later.
In Henrico County, Toby Vick left the office of commonwealth’s attorney in May 2000 after 6½ years as the top county prosecutor to work for the Richmond law firm McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe. Vick successfully recommended Wade Kizer to replace him in the interim, and Kizer went on to serve in the position for more than a decade.
In Hanover County, current Sheriff David Hines won election after heading up the office as an interim when the former sheriff of 20 years left office early.
Adams, Chesterfield’s treasurer, said he knows of other elections across the state in which the interim successor wasn’t chosen by voters. That happened at least once in recent years in Chesterfield.
Chesterfield Circuit Court clerk Judy Worthington left in 2014 with nearly two years left on her term, citing health reasons.
Her interim successor wasn’t on the 2014 ballot, and Wendy Hughes was elected clerk of court.