3-Way Campaign for Mayor Reads Like A Tale of Two Towns

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008

The candidates for Herndon mayor sound as if they are running for office in two different towns.

The message of incumbent Stephen J. DeBenedittis is, if not "Mission Accomplished," then "Mission Done Pretty Darn Well" in curbing the impact of illegal immigration. He sees a community united and looking to a peaceful and prosperous future.

"We've fundamentally changed what happens on the street," said DeBenedittis, 40, elected to his first term in 2006 on a wave of voter anger over a tax-funded job center for immigrant day laborers. He led the Town Council in closing the Herndon Official Workers Center, enrolling police in a federal program to detain and deport illegal immigrants wanted for serious criminal offenses, and toughening enforcement of laws against residential crowding.

"We've made a lot of progress," said DeBenedittis, a personal trainer and general manager of a McLean fitness club.

His two opponents Tuesday see an altogether different Herndon. They are running in a community where resentments still fester, they said, and where the tone set by the chief elected official has spawned uncertainty and fear, even among immigrants who reside in the country legally.

"We've just been polarized for far too many years," said J. Harlon Reece, a retired Marine Corps officer and Town Council member since 2000. Reece, 71, said that if elected mayor, he would form a working group of residents to recommend ways to unite the town, where more than 40 percent of the residents are foreign-born. How such a group would function, or what its specific charter might be, Reece has not said.

One concrete step, he said, would be to encourage police officers to spend more time outside their patrol cars, interacting with residents.

Jasbinder Singh, a civil engineer born in the Indian state of Punjab, said that, in campaigning door-to-door, he has seen fellow immigrants turn wary when they learn he is running for mayor. "People feel afraid," Singh, 62, said. He added that for all the sound and fury, the town's leadership has failed to lead an open and honest debate about diversity's impact on Herndon.

All three agree that the town faces other significant issues. Officials must make a decision on a long-debated plan for downtown redevelopment and come to terms with difficult budget and revenue questions created by the subprime mortgage collapse and a floundering national economy. Singh, who is president of an economic consulting firm and is pursuing a PhD in public policy from Carnegie Mellon University, said DeBenedittis does not have the credentials to lead the town through such complex matters.

"He's a personal trainer who got into office with these immigration issues," Singh said.

DeBenedittis said that such a critique is "an easy shot to take" and that his record over the past two years proves he is up to the job.

In the council race, 10 candidates are competing for six seats.

They include five incumbents: Dennis D. Husch, Connie Haines Hutchinson, David A. "Dave" Kirby, William B. "Bill" Tirrell and Charlie D. Waddell.

They are challenged by Richard F. Downer, owner of a life insurance agency and a former Town Council member; Penny S. Halpern, a proposal specialist for an information technology firm and longtime Girl Scouts volunteer; Arthur S. Nachman, a business development manager for a national real estate firm; Sheila A. Olem, a former member of the Herndon Board of Zoning Appeals; and James A. Vickery, a private investigator and former chief deputy to the Fairfax County sheriff.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company