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Labor Site Backlash Felt at Polls In Herndon

Steve J. DeBenedittis greets voters. DeBenedittis, 38, a health club operator and political newcomer, defeated Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly with 52 percent of the vote.
Steve J. DeBenedittis greets voters. DeBenedittis, 38, a health club operator and political newcomer, defeated Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly with 52 percent of the vote. (Jahi Chikwendiu - The Washington Post)

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By Bill Turque and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Herndon voters yesterday unseated the mayor and two Town Council members who supported a bitterly debated day-labor center for immigrant workers in a contest that emerged as a mini-referendum on the turbulent national issue of illegal immigration.

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Residents replaced the incumbents with challengers who immediately called for significant changes at the center. Some want to bar public funds from being spent on the facility or restrict it to workers living in the country legally. Others want it moved to an industrial site away from the residential neighborhood where it is located.

The labor center forced the western Fairfax County town into the national spotlight last summer as the immigration debate grew deeply contentious. Even though fewer than 3,000 people voted yesterday, advocates on both sides of the issue looked at the Herndon election as a test of public sentiment. Outside groups such as the Minuteman Project, which opposes illegal immigration, intervened in the debate, and Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group, is suing the town over the establishment of the center.

The council voted 5 to 2 last August to establish the center, but yesterday's vote created an apparent 6 to 1 majority in opposition. Steve J. DeBenedittis, 38, a health club operator and political newcomer, defeated Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly with 52 percent of the vote. Council members Carol A. Bruce and Steven D. Mitchell, who voted for the center, also were turned out of office. Jorge Rochac, a Salvadoran businessman who supported the center and was seeking to become the town's first Hispanic council member, also was defeated.

Elected to the council were challengers William B. Tirrell, Charlie D. Waddell, Connie Haines Hutchinson and David A. Kirby, all opponents of the facility, which was created to help immigrants connect with employers each day.

Two incumbents were reelected. Dennis D. Husch, who was one of the two council members to vote against the center, received more votes than any of the eight other council candidates. J. Harlon Reece was the lone supporter who was reelected. He received the fewest number of votes among the six winners.

Twenty-six percent of the town's 10,203 registered voters came to the polls, up from 20 percent when O'Reilly was elected two years ago, according to Fairfax County figures.

DeBenedittis, the son of a popular former high school art teacher in Herndon, said his victory was the product of intensive door-to-door campaigning and voters' deep discontent over how the labor center issue was handled by the mayor and council in the town of 23,000 residents.

"They didn't like the way the debate went down, and there was the feeling that they were not heard," he said.

DeBenedittis frequently skirted specifics on the labor center issue during the campaign, but he said in at least one candidate questionnaire that the facility on Sterling Road should be limited to legal immigrants.

A disappointed O'Reilly said last night that he was proud of the way he and the council handled the controversy. He said the center remains a quantum improvement over the chaotic ad hoc site in a 7-Eleven parking lot that had become a community eyesore.

"I'm really proud of what I stood for, and proud of what I did," O'Reilly said. "I think there was a lot of misinformation that was out there. There may be a lot more resentment and hatred out there than I anticipated."


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