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Votes

Perfect Storm

Council challengers attracted, unified supporters

As voters took to the polls in the Herndon Town Council election's early morning hours last week on Tuesday, it was apparent this local election would not be like the others.

Among the increased number of voting machines — doubled from the 2004 election — set up at the Herndon Community Center polling location and the television news cameras sitting on tripods outside, Herndon residents watched as they saw their town moved in a national spotlight.

"They geared up for the big one here," said chief election officer Elaine Gepford around 10 a.m. on election day. "We're expecting a higher than usual turnout because of the issues."

Those issues, Gepford said, had a lot to do with the current Town Council's majority decision to establish a regulated day labor site in Herndon in 2005 where local workers of legal or undocumented status could come as an alternative to waiting on neighborhood street corners. It ended up as lightning rod for local and national groups opposed to illegal immigration.

The polarization was seen outside, as the informal slate of candidates who supported the site grouped all of their signs and literature together on one side of the Community Center entrance, as the candidates who opposed it sat bunched on the opposite side.

"I think what will be more interesting is in seeing how many people make it out [to the election]," said Herndon resident Rich Baker after voting just before noon. "During the public hearings for the site a certain number of people came out on each side ... and I think this election will show what the whole town thinks about the issue."

The voters soon made their voices clear.

When the votes of 2,599 of 10,203 registered citizens who participated were tallied, Gepford came out of the glass doors of the Community Center to read the results. With a television news camera light shining brightly in her face, she read off the results.

"For Town Council Mayor, Steve DeBenedittis defeats Michael O'Reilly, 1,363 votes to 1,233 votes," Gepford read allowed as the wife and supporters of first-time politician DeBenedittis cheered and clapped hands.

It didn't stop there.

WHEN ALL of the winners had been read, the outcome of the election was clear: a majority of Herndon residents had come out to vote for almost an entire informal slate of candidates who had, in one way or another, criticized the existing Town Council's decision to establish the controversial day labor site.

Dennis Husch, the only incumbent running for re-election who refused to support the site, garnered the most votes and will be chosen, as per tradition, as vice-mayor when the new council comes to office July 1. Former council members Connie Hutchinson and Bill Tirrell, alongside council newcomers David Kirby and Charlie Waddell won seats on the council as well.

The only candidate to support the decision to establish the day labor site to be awarded a seat on the new Town Council was incumbent Harlon Reece. He received the fewest number of votes amongst the winners.

"I think its quite clear that there was one primary issue in the election," Husch said in a phone interview a week after the election. "That was the expenditure of public money on the day labor site and the belief that it was serving illegal immigrants, and by equation, the feeling that public money was going to illegal aliens."

"Given the chance, these residents stood up," he said. "The residents took back their town."

"I think what you saw here was that anger motivated more people than general acceptance motivated people," to come out to the polls, said O'Reilly. "People who voted on a single issue voted for that slate of candidates."

INFLAMMATORY, POLARIZING issues and their effect on bringing certain people out to the polls is not new in American politics, according to Dr. Susan Tolchin, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax and author of the book, "The Angry American: How Voter Rage Is Changing America."

"There's a lot of anti-immigrant anger in the country and I think it comes down to the limited number of resources the government has available," Tolchin said. "When the government deals with these resources and immigrants, you start seeing smaller pieces of the pie and people start to feel threatened."

"A lot of the anti-immigrant feeling is in competing for these smaller available resources."

As the national issue of illegal immigration reform has taken more of a front seat to other issues in recent months, the issue has become more quick to inspire passion on a local level, according to Tolchin.

"I think it's an issue that can be grasped easily," Tolchin said. "All of those issues like school boards and taxes aren't as easy to grasp for the average voter like gay marriage."

"Immigration is itself a complex issue, but it can be boiled down simplisticly," she added. "It can be used to get some people very angry and a person can be able to use that issue to manipulate voters very easily."

"When people are angry, they vote," Tolchin said. "It's always a simple issue that a lot of people can relate to and focus on and there's a strong desire to let other people know how they feel."

The people who were more frustrated with the national immigration issue and seeing it play out on a local level were more prone to come out to vote, according to Tolchin, than those who had no strong feelings on the issue one way or the other.

"The other side didn't get their voters out because they weren't angry," said Tolchin. "When you get enough people angered about an issue together you come to a critical mass of voters ... and a critical mass is very hard to beat."

THE ELECTION WAS lost for those in support of the day labor site when Herndon, a town made up of 26 percent Hispanic residents according to 2000 U.S. Census data, saw very few of its Hispanic voters take to the polls, according to losing council candidate Jorge Rochac, who garnered the fewest amount of votes.

"What happened really is that we weren't really able to inspire enough people to come out and vote," Rochac, a retired businessman originally from El Salvador, said. "Those that we came out to and told them to go to the polls didn't care. The Hispanics didn't care, the Muslims couldn't make it out."

"I thought it was time for the Hispanics to get out there and show that we were interested in being a part of the process," he added. "Obviously we're not."

Jennifer Boysko, Herndon resident and co-founder of the pro-immigration rights group, Herndon Embraces All with Respect and Tolerance (HEART), said that she believes if all 10,203 registered voters had made it to the poll that those who lost all would have won.

"When you're unhappy with something, you're more likely to get out and go to the polls," Boysko said. "There was a whole lot of anger and discontent and that's what got those others out there."

"I can't tell you how many people came up to me and said, 'Well if I would have known it would be so close, I'd have gotten out to vote,'" she added

MAYOR-ELECT DeBenedittis said that while he recognizes a level of dissatisfaction in those voters who ultimately chose him and the other winning candidates, it was more about meeting voters first-hand that led to his victory.

"I think it was just getting out to meet the people," DeBenedittis said, adding that many of the people who came to the polls on May 2 remembered him from seeing him at their homes.

"People who feel passionately [about illegal immigration] were more likely to vote," said Connie Hutchinson, who won a seat in the Town Council for her third time last Tuesday. "I don't think that I'd call it anger as much as voters were frustrated that they hadn't been listened to."

Hutchinson said that she believes more people got out to support her and other voters as a result of the hard work from her and other candidates to remind people to vote, such as a phone call reminder to voters the day before the election.

THE ELECTION WAS lost in its early stages when O'Reilly began to campaign more strictly on a slate consisting of himself, council members Carol Bruce, Steve Mitchell and Reece and challenger Rochac, said Husch.

"The O'Reilly group was formed up early on, and as they became a candidate block, they built up their own singular constituency," Husch said. "We [the other candidates] never came together and formed into a block outside of a few overlapping events."

"We all worked independently to build up our own constituency," he added.

"Dave Kirby knew a lot of people that we didn't know, Connie Hutchinson knew a lot of people that we didn't know, and Steve DeBenedittis knew a lot of people that we didn't know," Husch said. "When each constituency showed up on election day and voters asked us who else they should vote for, we made our suggestions."

"You can't run in lock-step with three or four other candidates like what O'Reilly and his block did," Husch said. "I think that was a tactical error that those that lost made."

THE MAY 2 RESULTS in Herndon are not surprising given several historical examples throughout U.S. history, Tolchin said.

"I think it's politics as usual, it's predictable," Tolchin said of the results. "If you have an issue that fires people up, there will always be leaders that can take advantage of it fairly easily."

"There were a lot of people who we spoke to who were generally happy with what was going on with the town who just didn't get in their cars," said O'Reilly. "We definitely didn't get out and see that more than 50 percent of the voters were angry."