Howard History

First female sheriff

September 16, 2007

As reported Sept. 20, 1982, in The Sun:

Just because she has a deep voice , short-cropped sandy hair, and a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson pistol hanging low on her hip does not mean she's a tomboy, she says.

The gold star campaign badge she still sports days after being elected Howard county sheriff means she will be taking over the mostly male domain of the sheriff's office in December.

Like someone out of the Old West, she swaggers a bit in her beige deputy's uniform a holster slung low about her waist, her feet encased in men's brogues.

"When you're going after something people have stereotyped as for men only, they always call you a tomboy," says Virginia L. Donnelly, who will be sworn in December 5 as the first woman sheriff in Maryland.

The 30-year-old mother of two from Ellicott City soundly defeated her boss, two-term incumbent John J. Votta, 73, in last Tuesday's Democratic primary.

The margin by unofficial count was 7,116 to 4,864, which startled Howard county's political establishment. She faces no Republican opponents in the November general election and thus is elected to the $ 17,500-a-year job.

Ms. Donnelly says she achieved victory by having "patience."

"My mother taught me that. She said not to speak out during the campaign when people kept saying things that made me mad. She said the time will come, and it did," Ms. Donnelly said.

Her family also helped her win, she says.

"My father was my campaign strategist , and my nine brothers and sisters and about 20-something nieces and nephews went door-to-door campaigning for me," she said.

She also was a persistent personal campaigner, appearing at dozens of candidates' nights community events and organizational meetings weeks on end.

Sheriff Votta, however, says he lost the race only because of his age.

"My age beat me. I'm physically fit as anyone in that office," he said. "Nobody can say I wasn't doing a good job."

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