About 70 people who gathered in a conference room at the Roanoke County Courthouse on Friday counted themselves as friends, family and colleagues of Steve McGraw. The four-decade Democrat has been Roanoke County Circuit Court Clerk since 1992, following two terms on the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors.
His last day in office is Tuesday. McGraw’s resigning and retiring with just under a year left in his term.
Wednesday, his longtime chief deputy, Rhonda Perdue, formally assumes the reins in the clerk’s office, at least through the end of the year. As a Republican, she’s running to succeed him.
McGraw, 72, is backing Perdue wholeheartedly. For that reason, he carefully termed Friday afternoon’s gathering “a transition party” on the emailed invitations, rather than a retirement bash.
“We need to consider the future of this office and her name is Rhonda Perdue,” McGraw told the assembled crowd with utter seriousness. “For the past 26 years, Rhonda has been there to head up, manage and oversee many of our modern initiatives while working her way up to chief deputy clerk starting seven years ago.”
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It’s not every day that a Democrat endorses a Republican. In the current environment of deep partisan polarization, such an endorsement can easily be seen as an unforgivable act of political heresy.
But there’s another way to look at it, too.
Isn’t it possible that, after working alongside Perdue for more than 25 years, McGraw believes she’s the best person for the job? And that he’s more concerned the office he’s exiting operates fairly and efficiently than he is about the political party of the person in charge?
That’s the kind of person voters often say they want in office — someone willing to rise above partisanship, to do the right thing.
On Saturday, McGraw told me: “She’s the best possible person to take my place in that office. That’s all I care about.”
Before he got involved in politics, McGraw wore a number of different hats.
He grew up in Roanoke’s southwest quadrant, in the shadow of Virginia Heights Elementary school. He graduated from Patrick Henry High and later Virginia Tech. Even later, McGraw earned a master’s degree.
For a spell he worked as a plumber’s helper; in another job he managed home deliveries of this newspaper.
At some point after college, McGraw spent three years as a social worker in child protective services. On occasion, tragedies he witnessed during that day job left him sleepless and emotional at night.
In the early 1980s, McGraw owned a bar on West Main Street in Salem, The Barrel House. (Awful Arthur’s restaurant is in the same location now.) And he sold real estate as an agent and broker.
All those endeavors brought him into contact with a wide range of people. So did his deep and longtime involvement with the Roanoke Kiwanis Club. Many of his closest friends are members, too.
McGraw’s first venture as a political candidate was an independent bid for the Catawba seat on the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors in 1979. He lost that election. But later, as a Democrat, he won it in 1983 and again in 1987.
McGraw considers former state delegate Dick Cranwell of Vinton his political mentor. Cranwell recalled McGraw’s losing 1979 race as “the scraggly kid from Catawba area who was going to take Roanoke County by storm.”
Today, “I’d say he’s one of the best retail politicians I’ve ever met,” Cranwell told me. “He gets out and meets people from daylight to dusk. He’s as refined and skilled a political operator as they come … And he’s a genuinely good human being. I think that came across in retail politics.”
“He’s a fighter,” said Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, another longtime McGraw associate. “Hell, he’s got three black belts in Taekwondo.” Saunders added: “He’s also one hell of a family man, and about as gracious a guy as you can find.”
As county supervisor, McGraw formally opposed consolidation of Roanoke and Roanoke County, which county voters vehemently shot down in a 1990 referendum. Nevertheless, among his accomplishments were city-county cooperative ventures that seemed to make sense.
One was the development of the Smith Gap Landfill. Another was a local agreement among valley governments that allowed police to chase suspects into neighboring jurisdictions.
McGraw also championed construction of Spring Hollow Reservoir. To strengthen the valley’s water supply, it was later merged into the Western Virginia Water Authority, another example of city-county cooperation.
In 1991, McGraw challenged then-incumbent Circuit Court Clerk Elizabeth Stokes, a Republican seeking her fourth term in office.
The clerk’s post seemed attractive for a number of reasons. One of them was its eight-year term, the longest in American politics. Another was the not-insignificant annual salary (now $147,200).
But as that October came around, internal polling by Democrats suggested Stokes would cruise to reelection.
Three weeks before Election Day, McGraw leaked a state auditor’s report to this newspaper. It had quietly come across his supervisor’s desk months earlier. It found financial mismanagement in the clerk’s office under Stokes, though not to a criminal extent. Local TV stations picked up the story and ran with it. That was unusual in a clerk-of-court election.
Stokes fought back, but oddly. Publicly, she compared McGraw to Anita Hill, a whistleblower who earlier that year had testified to Congress that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her. On any number of levels, the comparison was a wild stretch.
Ultimately, voters in Republican-dominated Roanoke County put McGraw in office by a few hundred hundred votes. He’s been Roanoke County Circuit Court Clerk ever since. (He squeaked to victory in his last election, in 2015, by 37 votes.)
At Friday’s party, McGraw was humble. He told the crowd his success was due to the large number of friends, family and acquaintances who had backed him over the years. Basically, he meant the people who were in the room.
“The old saying that ‘it takes a village’ could not be truer when applied to my career, beginning with those early days in 1979,” McGraw said. It began with “my first and always my most ardent supporter, my wife Sharon. … From that we developed a really strong cadre of volunteers over the years.”
The couple has two grown sons, Steven and Robert. The former lives here in the valley with his wife, Kelly, and their daughter, Penny. Robert McGraw is married and lives in southern Maryland.
Sharon McGraw, a social worker in Roanoke, is retiring as well. Leaving the rat race will give both a chance to spend longer periods in Florida, where they own a condo near Daytona Beach.
They’re keeping their home in Catawba, though, and will be back a lot, visiting their granddaughter.
“I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough to my village, to my co-workers, or to the voters of Roanoke County,” McGraw said. “It’s been quite a ride.”
Contact metro columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter:.