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.
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."
Judith M. Markbein, 59, a second grade teacher, said she voted the incumbents out because "when we put money into a day-labor site, we are putting money into people who are illegal. I'm not trying to be prejudiced, but when people are given rights that they haven't earned, it makes me angry."
The challengers attributed their victories not to hatred, but to the council's falling out of touch with voters.
"It's a new direction for Herndon," said Waddell, a systems engineer. "We've got a new slate. We've got a new council. We've got a new mayor. We are going to try to be responsive to the people. That was lost on the council."
Waddell said he favors moving the center to a commercial area and will try to tap private funds for its operation. It now operates in part on a grant from Fairfax County.
"You've got day laborers cutting between yards to get to the center," he said. "I've talked to residents who said they have been awakened at 6 in the morning by laborers sitting on their lawn furniture in the back yard because they are waiting for the center to open. That's not good for the neighborhood."
Hutchinson, who was on the council previously, said the panel ignored the feelings of the community. "I do think the voters have spoken," she said. "I don't know where we go from here."
The center has another year to go on a conditional use permit, and the new council can use that time to seek alternatives, she said. Hutchinson said she also favors moving the center to another area.
Former mayor Richard C. Thoesen, a backer of the center, said he attributed the results to voter frustration over the town's burgeoning immigrant population, which has led to serious residential crowding. He added that Monday's nationwide demonstrations organized by immigrants' rights groups constituted "bad timing" that may have added to the backlash.
He cautioned the new mayor and council to do what they can to reunite the town. "The fallout for Herndon could be devastating if they don't handle this well," he said.
Last year, the Minuteman group, a chapter of an Arizona-based national organization that fights illegal immigration, began appearing at the 7-Eleven. They photographed employers and workers and turned over the evidence to state agencies as well as the Internal Revenue Service.
The Minutemen also have shown up at the new day-labor site, leading to confrontations between supporters and opponents. George Taplin, leader of the local Minuteman group, said the goal is to rid Herndon of illegal immigrants.
Last summer, Herndon Town Hall was forced to unplug its phone lines after listeners of a talk show on WMAL (630 AM) flooded the switchboard with what officials said were hate calls against the day-labor site.
Town officials say it has operated smoothly since its contentious launch in December. With milder spring weather, work has become more plentiful. Bill Threlkeld of Project Hope and Harmony, which operates the center for Reston Interfaith Inc., a nonprofit group that has received a grant from Fairfax County, said recently that about half of the 100 or so workers who come out in the morning find employment.
Reece said the national debate took over a local dispute. "The immigration issue has become such an issue nationally that it affected the local election," he said.
Reece said he could favor moving the center, but he said it will be difficult: "I just don't want to see it closed. I don't want us to go back to the unregulated, chaotic situation like we had before."
Staff writer Candace Rondeaux contributed to this report.