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Correction to This Article
A May 24 Metro article about the mayor-elect of Herndon, Steve J. DeBenedittis, misidentified the president of the local historical society. It is Carol A. Bruce.
HERNDON GOVERNMENT

Mayor-Elect Seeks End to Day-Labor Anger, Return to Town's Roots

Steve J. DeBenedittis, left, works with Craig McCune at the health club he manages in Tysons Corner. He says he ran for mayor because
Steve J. DeBenedittis, left, works with Craig McCune at the health club he manages in Tysons Corner. He says he ran for mayor because "a lot of us felt our voices hadn't been heard." (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Herndon's mayor-elect sits at a conference table inside Town Hall in shorts, sneakers and a short-sleeved checked shirt, a cellphone clipped to his waist in case he's needed at one of the three gyms he manages.

If Steve J. DeBenedittis's world has been rocked by making national headlines on one of the most turbulent issues in America, it doesn't show. He may have come out of nowhere May 2 to rout the mayor and sweep in a slate of Town Council candidates who oppose illegal immigration and its visible symbol in Herndon, a bitterly debated job center for day laborers, but he's poker-faced. Life hasn't changed much in the past few weeks, he says. He still gets to the gym at 5:30 a.m., trains clients on how to sculpt their muscles and chases his toddlers around the yard.

If there's a mandate in his head-turning election, he says, it's to return Herndon to the quiet, charming western Fairfax town it was before passion and anger took over. To restore a voice to neighbors, friends and other supporters who felt blindsided when the town allowed Latino men to gather at a 7-Eleven to wait for construction work.

"I'm proud to be from Herndon," DeBenedittis said. "What I really care about is the town. If people find some meaning in that, that's great."

The 38-year-old hometown boy who remembers when there was one traffic light downtown is a product of what Herndon used to be. He's never seen the Latin American countries where 40 percent of his constituents were born. But he's also a part of what Herndon (population 23,000) has become, a gear in Northern Virginia's fast-driving engine and the service economy that girds it. He helps manage the stress of the lawyers and engineers and information technology specialists who work at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner.

Now he's learning a new vocabulary, the arcana of local government: taxes, building codes for overcrowded housing, public-private partnerships for downtown development.

But once DeBenedittis is sworn in July 1, it's the Herndon Official Workers Center that will define him. The mayor-elect and a majority on the new council want big changes that could mean anything from moving it and cutting off public funding to shutting it down. On Friday, he and council members visited the job center during the 7 a.m. rush at the invitation of Project Hope and Harmony, which manages the site.

Divisions over the issue and the election remain. And they reach close to home. The mayor-elect's sister, Jennie Albers, works at the job center full time, running the lottery system that pairs workers' skills with employers. Unlike her older brother, who has never been outside the country, Albers speaks fluent Spanish. Although he and his sister "don't agree on everything," DeBenedittis said, he admires her work.

Longtime Herndon politicians said they were stunned that a newcomer with no record of service to the town could lead a community with complex social, financial and development challenges.

"I'm sure Mr. DeBenedittis is a very nice person," said 18-year council member Carol A. Bruce, who was defeated May 2. "But he has no experience, no record of service and no history of involvement in the town. He was elected by a bunch of angry people who came out to vote on a single issue that had nothing to do with Herndon."

The people who elected DeBenedittis were angry. But they say their opposition to the job center, which attracts many Latinos living in the country illegally, has everything to do with Herndon: The town's leaders fell out of touch with them. While immigrants were marching on Washington to demand legal status and Congress was debating stricter immigration laws, DeBenedittis and his neighbors on Winterhaven Place were watching men walk through their cul-de-sacs and back yards to get to the job center, less than a quarter-mile from their homes.

"A lot of us felt our voices hadn't been heard," the mayor-elect said. "I didn't see anyone else stepping up to run for mayor."


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