By Ian Munro, contributor
The five city council candidates tried Wednesday evening to appeal to bloc of potential voters that often eludes them—especially in midterm election years. But even the students who showed up to the Traveling Town Hall stop at JMU’s Grace Street Apartments weren’t exactly sure, at least at first, how the city council affects them.
Phillip Wong, a junior psychology major, was one of the few students to ask any questions of the council candidates: Democrats Chris Jones and Sal Romero Jr. and independents Carolyn Frank, Frank McMillan and Paloma Saucedo. The five are vying for two spots on the council.
“I’m intrigued about what exactly the city council has to offer the JMU students considering that, I’m not sure if there’s a deep divide or a bit of separation between the JMU community and the Harrisonburg community,” Wong said.
About 20 students attended the first leg of a three-stop Traveling Town Hall, which was organized by the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement and Dukes Vote, as a way to bring the local and federal candidates in the Nov. 6 election to the students. While JMU students typically turn out in presidential election years, less than 9 percent of students voted in the last mid-term election in 2014, according to data from Tufts University.
Each council candidate had 10 minutes to speak. All of them spoke about their positions and their hopes for the city’s relationships with students and tried to play up their ties to JMU. During their presentations, for instance, both Jones and Romero highlighted their experiences as JMU students.
Most candidates had success in getting the audience to ask questions. In all, the audience asked ten questions over the hour-long forum with Jones getting four.
After all the candidates had finished, Wong said he appreciated that each of the candidates at least tried to connect with students and hoped that will have an effect.
“You rarely hear about the city council, you rarely hear about what they believe in and about the community,” Wong said. “You get so focused on national and all these bigger races that you fail to remember that there are still people at the local level trying to fix everything.”
Luke Forbes and Rebecca Tarkenton, both juniors, said they lean toward the Democrats.
Forbes, a member of JMU’s College Democrats, said he was interested in hearing what the other candidates had to say.
“I already kind of knew who I was going to vote for, obviously, but I wanted to see how the other candidates fared in a town hall setting,” he said.
Tarkenton said she wanted more information about “who I am voting for.”
“Any effect on the community has an effect on me cause I’m part of the community,” she said.
Anastaciya Wheeler, a sophomore public relations major and a Resident Advisor from northern Virginia, said civic engagement is important to her.
“I genuinely enjoyed all the things that were said today, especially when it pertained to immigrants,” she said. “The immigrant population in Harrisonburg was something I didn’t know about when I came here.”
Paloma Saucedo, one of the independents, spoke about her journey to America, working while undocumented and graduating from Mary Baldwin College in Staunton. But she also mentioned her own JMU connection.
“After working at the hospital, I became the executive director of the Valley AIDS network, and we were at JMU so I had the pleasure of working with many, many interns from JMU,” she said.
She also discussed her decision to run as an independent.
“We want to create independent political power that is based on grassroots power,” she said. “So I think that the moment demands that we elect women, that we elect people of color, that we elect queer people, and that we change the face of politics and that has to happen at the local level as well.”
One student asked Saucedo about what can be done to make LGBTQ and undocumented members of the community feel safe.
“I think one of the main things we need to do is stop collaborating with ICE,” she said, referring to the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement department, which has a local office. “In order for people to change their mind, we have to address systemic racism. Racism is prevalent, not only in Harrisonburg but in our nation and its been reflected by the policies that are in place.”
Frank McMillan, also running as an independent, described his platform as “basically focused on four E’s — education, economic development, environment, and ethics in government.”
That prompted Wong to ask for details about what he meant by bringing ethics to government.
“We need to do a better job of portraying what our government is doing and how it affects the local communities and the residents of those communities,” McMillan said.
On education, McMillan emphasized the positive effects of vocational classes. On economic development, McMillan talked about having higher tech jobs, bringing with them higher wages, to keep JMU alumni and attract other skilled workers form across the nation. On the environment, McMillan wants to work with industry to make up for shortcoming in the recycling industry.
McMillan cited his family’s ties to JMU and said “Harrisonburg wouldn’t be Harrisonburg without JMU.”
Democrat Chris Jones told the group how excited he was to get his JMU acceptance letter as well as his work in JMU’s student government and the success of a silent protest involving students and faculty to urge the administration to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday at JMU.
Jones also said it was important that city officials, including police officers, reflected the community’s diversity. He said that means hiring more women and people of color.
“Community policing by getting to know people is one thing, community policing by people who look like you, is much better,” he said.
He praised the community service work Dukes have done and stressed the difficulties many Harrisonburg residents face. Specifically, he cited the startling results of the United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report that found 60 percent of Harrisonburg residents are struggling to make ends meet even as they’re working multiple jobs.
Fellow Democratic Candidate Sal Romero started off by showing his campaign video. Romero, who immigrated from Mexico as a child, spoke about his language difficulties in pursuing higher education.
“One of the reasons I’m running is because we need more voices at the table. And that means voices of JMU students at the table,” he said.
Romero also urge students to break out of what he called the “college bubble,” in which college students tend to isolate themselves in student-only complexes and shop mostly at big-box stores and chains instead of local businesses. That, he said, is “something that needs to change.”
Wong asked Romero about people being turned off by political party labels.
“What I’m doing as a candidate, is I’m trying to be as personable as I can to people,” Romero said. “My hope is over the last 27 years I’ve been in Harrisonburg, having worked in the schools for 12, having been on the state board of education, being a community leader people will know who I am to that extent and understand my work ethic and my real means as to why I am running.”
Carolyn Frank, an independent who served two previous terms on the council, told the group about the challenges that the city and school faced, such as with the out-of-control block parties that spilled into confrontations in August 2000. A similar event required police intervention in April 2010 and made national news. She said the strong the city-campus relationship, the more it benefits students and the Harrisonburg community.
“We worked our way through that and we had meetings and talked and we found ways to make our students feel welcome in Harrisonburg,” she said.
Frank said she’s always tried to maintain a “positive relationship with JMU students.”
She ended her speaking time talking about past initiatives she worked on to revitalize the downtown area and her aims to make Harrisonburg affordable and attractive.