By Bridget Manley, Liesl Graber and Andrew Jenner
In the end, the five-way race for two seats on the Harrisonburg City Council wasn’t close. Democrats Sal Romero and Chris Jones won by comfortable margins on Tuesday night, proving unfounded any concerns that a split vote might harm their chances in a city where Democrats now regularly win.
On his second run for council, Romero finished first in the five-candidate race with 6,737 total votes, according to unofficial Tuesday night returns. Jones, the race’s only incumbent and a former mayor, won 6,186 votes.
“I knew we had a lot of momentum going into the campaign,” said Romero, adding that he felt humbled, excited and surprised with the result. “We ran on a very transparent message and we were up front about what we were going to vote for, and people were able to see us in the general way that we are.”
The coordinator of family and community engagement for Harrisonburg City Public Schools, Romero’s campaign emphasized education and his support for moving quickly to build a new high school. He also stressed the need to make city government more accessible for people who face barriers to participating in regular council meetings.
From the start, he said, he will work to make sure that “as a city council, we go out into the community and become more inclusive in intentional ways so the families feel like we want to listen to them.”
Romero, who won nearly every precinct in the city, will be Harrisonburg’s first Latino city council member. He said he hopes to continue working with the other candidates in the race.
“I think they have a lot of good things that they can bring to the city,” he said.
First elected in 2014, Jones also campaigned on building a second high school as soon as possible.
Jones said Tuesday night he was “extremely humbled” by the support he received from all corners of Harrisonburg.
“I appreciate the opportunity to allow me to serve our city,” he said. “I’m excited about moving the issues of my campaign forward — of our campaign forward — because all of the things on my platform came from business owners, nonprofits. The people of Harrisonburg built my campaign.”
He said he was excited to see those plans, such as the city hiring a sustainability coordinator and a criminal justice coordinator, “come to fruition.”
He choked up as he thanked his family, friends and neighbors.
“I look forward to serving you. I love you guys,” he said, then repeated several times.
Former mayor Carolyn Frank finished third with 4,225 votes.
“I’m concerned as a property owner about the rising taxes in the city,” Frank said, before referencing the construction of a second high school. “I do hope the new council members can get together with the school board and really go over the numbers.”
Frank McMillan, who also ran as an Independent but was supported by the local Republican party, came in fourth with 3,776 votes.
“I felt good going into today, and I felt the message was being well-received,” he said, acknowledging disappointment with the result.
The race’s third independent, Paloma Saucedo, ran to the left of the Democrats and finished with 2,434 votes. Feeling positive about her campaign, she said she hopes Romero and Jones will “lead the city with grace, humility and kindness,” in a way that’s inclusive to all its communities.
Saucedo and McMillan left open the possibility of a future run for council; Frank said she probably won’t run again.