By Kathy Adams
© September 1, 2013
Del. Chris Stolle strolled to the front of the Colonial Education Center on a July evening and faced about 50 of his Witchduck neighbors and constituents.
He talked transportation and tolls, partisanship and potholes, Medicaid and Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Clearing his throat, he then dropped the headline: He would be running for re-election this fall, alongside two of his brothers, one vying for sheriff and another for commonwealth’s attorney.
“So you’ll see three Stolles on your ballot this year,” he explained. “I just wanted to bring that up so there would be no confusion.”
The crowd chuckled politely.
If they are elected Nov. 5, it will set up a power triangle in which Del. Chris Stolle makes the law, Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle prosecutes those who break it and Sheriff Ken Stolle locks them up.
The candidates — all Republicans — come from a large and close-knit family that didn’t have much of a stake in politics.
That changed when Ken won election to the state Senate in the early ’90s, back when being a Republican in Virginia was a liability. He has since grown into a political power player.
Ken, 59, and Chris, 55, are running for their second and third terms, respectively. It’s the first race for Colin, 43.
Ken Stolle served in the state Senate for nearly two decades before stepping down at the end of 2009 to run for sheriff. Chris Stolle won election to the House of Delegates that same year.
The appearance of a family trio on the ballot is rare, said Jesse Richman, an associate professor of political science at Old Dominion University.
More common is the perpetuation of political power through generations, said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University. Think the Kennedys, the Bushes and, in Virginia, the Byrds.
Virginia Beach has the Kellam family, a source of civic leaders, judges and elected officials going back to the late 1800s. Phil Kellam is the city’s Commissioner of the Revenue.
Often, Kidd said, one person paves the way, opening doors for family members by sharing political resources and encouraging them to seek office.
Name recognition helps, he said.
“If everyone is doing their job and they’re clean and they’re virtuous in their actions in office, then it’s golden,” Kidd said. “I think where people start to get uncomfortable is if it looks like there’s too much power consolidated in the hands of one family.”
That both incumbents are running unopposed this election is a vote of confidence, Richman said. And he said voters ultimately will decide how many Stolles they want in power.
Dressed in brown uniforms, Ken Stolle and his deputies stood out amid the usual throng of sport coats at the General Assembly in February.
Ken was back in Richmond to support a bill he’d asked his brother Chris to carry, hoping that jails like his would be allowed more leeway in the use of certain store profits.
“Welcome back, former Sen. Stolle!” boomed the committee’s chair, Virginia Beach Republican Sen. Frank Wagner.
Several criminal justice reform groups expressed concerns that the proposal would allow jailers to gouge poor inmates and their families. The sheriff asked the committee to pass it to make up for shrinking state funds.
It sailed through and later became law.
Ken Stolle’s reception at the Assembly hasn’t always been so warm.
The attorney and former police officer arrived in the Senate in 1992 after defeating incumbent Moody E. “Sonny” Stallings Jr., a Democrat, by 2,000 votes.
Democrats had controlled the legislature since Reconstruction. There had never been more than 10 Republicans in the Senate at once, Ken said. He was one of 17 elected to the chamber that year.
He landed on the Courts of Justice Committee, which plays a major role in appointing judges. Ken thought that meant he would get a say.
The Democrats quickly set him straight.
“Boy, this doesn’t concern you,” one told him when he tried to speak up. “You’re a Republican, and you don’t get a say-so in judges.”
But the political tides were changing in Virginia.
Ken’s star rose with the GOP’s, though he didn’t always toe the party line, and he became one of the Senate’s ranking Republicans and chairman of the committee that once shunned him.
He used his influence to pick judges (including an attorney he read law under), work through budget battles and push through public safety legislation, including limiting handgun purchases to one a month. He also was a driving force behind ending parole in Virginia.
In 1997, Ken lost a bid for the Republican nomination for attorney general.
In 2009, he announced that he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological disorder.
After his diagnosis, Ken decided to leave the Capitol and run for Virginia Beach sheriff, a move that would allow him to return to law enforcement and, his wife said, adopt a less stressful lifestyle.
In 2010, he defeated police Capt. John L. Bell Jr., a Democrat, with 70 percent of the vote.
Ken now rises at 4 a.m. most days to fish or hunt with friends, colleagues and occasionally his brothers before reporting to the jail, where some of his hunting trophies – antelope heads, geese posed in mid-flight and a black bear – stand watch over his office and conference room.
One afternoon, the sheriff dropped in on a fishing camp for underprivileged children, shaking hands with volunteers, many of them his deputies.
“How you doin’?… Good seeing you… It’s awful nice of you to do this,” he said, circling the room at the Law Enforcement Training Academy off Birdneck Road. “Don’t hold my brothers against me,” he later joked.
Politics wasn’t the first career choice for Chris and Colin Stolle either, they say.
After 24 years in the Navy, as a submariner and then a gynecologist, Dr. Chris Stolle took a job as vice president of medical affairs at Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News. He said he soon became frustrated with the barrage of regulations from Richmond and Washington, making it more difficult for doctors to practice medicine.
Ken encouraged him to do something about it. He ran for the General Assembly, losing once in 2007 before winning his House seat in 2009.
Chris benefitted from the Stolle name, fundraising power and experience. He also inherited resentment from lawmakers who butted heads with his political heavyweight brother, something Ken said he knows Chris had to overcome.
But Chris forged his own reputation. He bucked the party with his support for keeping a mandatory human papillomavirus vaccine for girls and opposition of mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortions. He successfully pushed for expedited sand replenishment at storm-ravaged Chic’s Beach and to ensure military children aren’t excluded from school activities because of a family move.
Colin was in college when Ken joined the Senate. He graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University that year with a bachelor’s degree in political science and thought about joining the Navy, but he decided to try reading law like his brothers Ken and Ed.
He hated it.
Colin was ready to give up when he tagged along with Ken to lunch with then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Humphreys. Humphreys offered him a part-time job as coordinator for the office’s habitual offender program, which dealt with people who have repeat convictions for drunken driving or driving on a suspended or revoked license.
He accepted, and found his life’s work.
“I was completely blown away by how prosecutors came to court every single day and put the bad guys away and helped victims put their lives back together,” he said. “I was amazed. These were the good guys.”
He “suffered through” reading law, passed the bar in 1996 and landed a job as a prosecutor in the office where he’d started.
He has stayed and, after eight years as chief deputy, is pursuing the top job he says he’s coveted since day one.
When Commonwealth’s Attorney Harvey Bryant in December announced his retirement, Colin, much like Chris before him, went to Ken for advice.
“You have to be opposed” in the election, Ken told him. “Or they’ll say you got elected because you’re a Stolle.”
Defense attorney Gregory Turpin, a Democrat, is challenging Colin Stolle, a Republican.
The former police officer and prosecutor said he had decided to run three or four years ago.
When Colin heard, the prosecutor called in December and asked whether that was still Turpin’s intention, even if Bryant wasn’t the opponent.
“I’m calling to try to talk you out of it,” Turpin recalled him saying.
Colin said that wasn’t his motive. The two had been colleagues and friends.
“I’d hate for us to have to fight for this, but if your mind’s made up, my mind’s made up, too,” Colin recalled saying. “At no time did I ever tell him he shouldn’t run.”
Lisa Turner, Turpin’s campaign strategist, said she knows they’re up against a political powerhouse.
“I was told by people I consider friends, but also that are elected officials, as well as people that are appointed, who told me that he didn’t have a chance. Their stronghold was too powerful to beat,” Turner said.
“I told Greg that of course people would say that… but that was OK because you have to fight, and you have to present people an option.”
Turpin said he’s undaunted.
“Is there danger in sort of consolidating power at the different levels of our local government, legislator and prosecutor and the sheriff’s office?” Turpin said. “I think that is a question that the citizens should ask, and it’s up to the voters to make a decision whether that’s something they should be concerned about or not.”
Being a Stolle means living in the public eye.
Ken Stolle’s son Ken Jr. was charged in November with drunken driving after a rear-end collision. He was a Chesapeake deputy and a Stolle, and the arrest made headlines.
But his father’s longtime friend and political ally, attorney and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, successfully argued for an acquittal.
Skeptics have questioned the former senator’s motives in running for sheriff, a move that, after one term in office, multiplied his state pension by nearly five times. Had he stayed in the Assembly, he would have taken home $18,737 a year in retirement. After his time as sheriff, he’ll take home more than $87,000.
That’s because the payout, in part, is calculated by averaging a government worker’s three or five highest-paid years, depending on when they were hired; he now earns about $164,000. He also will benefit from a bill that he sponsored in 2007 to boost state pensions.
Ken said money wasn’t his motive in becoming sheriff. Private law practice was more lucrative.
The sheriff drew fire again when, during his first year in office, former sheriff and close family friend Paul Lanteigne helped his new employer, Conmed Health Management, take over the jail’s multimillion-dollar medical contract, even though it wasn’t the lowest bidder.
Ken said that he recused himself from reviewing bids and that Conmed got the job, worth $9 million, because it offered additional psychiatric services and experience with electronic medical records.
The Stolles have become seasoned at fielding criticism.
“Ken doesn’t take anything personally, and he knows what he’s gotten into,” said his wife, Debbie. “But it’s very hard sometimes when it becomes personal for me. But, you know, we just have to deal with that, and we asked for it, so we just have to hope that it’s handled delicately.”
The sheriff has been credited for restoring funds for the jail’s GED program, expanding the facility’s mental health offerings and curbing assaults on deputies.
Ken said he weighs how his actions reflect on his brothers. They share an unmistakable family resemblance and often are confused for one another.
But there are perks, too: moral support, financing (they donate to one another’s campaigns and share many political donors) and a built-in network of trusted advisers.
“We’re brothers and best friends, so we will help each other,” Ken said.
Ed and Patricia Stolle set an example of service for their six children – Ed R., Ken, Bob, Chris, Siobhan and Colin.
Ed, 84, served 27 years in the Navy, including in the Vietnam War, and then read law and passed the bar exam, becoming a guardian ad litem representing children in court. Patricia, 82, was active with the Catholic church, including Sanctuary of Tidewater, a charity she started for pregnant teens.
Still, their offspring’s success – they raised two doctors, three attorneys and an engineer – sometimes surprises them, Ed Stolle said.
“We sat for years in awe,” he said. “We had no idea what the future held for them or what they would be.”
Ken said he shares his dad’s astonishment.
“I wasn’t a stellar student. I was a ‘C’ and ‘B’ student at best, and I think things just happen sometimes,” he said. “I was always the black sheep of the family, the troublemaker.”
Their closeness is less surprising. After 18 moves in 27 years, the Stolle siblings have grown inseparable.
Family members still get together for holidays and vacation every year – all 42 of them, spanning four generations. They spent a week in August at a beach house in the Outer Banks, debating politics and playing corn hole, beer pong and KanJam, a flying disc game, Ed Stolle said.
The patriarch encouraged his sons on their political paths, donating $500 to each for their first campaigns – and sometimes more later – and working for several years as a volunteer legislative assistant for Ken in the Senate.
Others in the family are on the public payroll, too.
Debbie Stolle worked as an administrative clerk in the Sheriff’s Office before her husband was elected sheriff. They worried there would be a conflict, so she got a job in the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.
Ken’s daughter, Whitney Darden, is a first-grade teacher at Creeds Elementary School. He sends her flowers there every Valentine’s Day.
And some have been involved in politics.
Bob Stolle was secretary of commerce and trade under Gov. George Allen and now works for a nonprofit technology corporation. Ed R. Stolle was commissioner of accounts in Virginia Beach, a post filled by the Circuit Court judges.
Their sister, Dr. Siobhan Dunnavant, is a Richmond gynecologist and a director for the Medical Society of Virginia who often testifies on legislation before the Assembly.
Chris’ son, Graham, a law school graduate, interned at the Assembly and in the Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Ken’s son Ross is managing Councilman Bill DeSteph’s campaign for the House of Delegates.
Colin’s son, Colin Jr., was a Senate messenger this year, just like several of his cousins.
The then-middle school student participated in the Senate’s mock legislative session in February, his uncle Chris watching proudly from the back.
With a Navy blazer, sandy blond hair and big hazel eyes, Colin Jr. looked like a miniature version of the Stolles who’d sat there before.
Pilot researcher Jakon Hays contributed to this report.
Kathy Adams, 757-222-5155, firstname.lastname@example.org