By Calvin Pynn, contributor
Three seats on Harrisonburg’s City Council will be on the ballot in November’s election, and candidates are already lining up, starting with a pair of newcomers to political office.
JMU student and local activist Luciano Benjamin announced his candidacy with a press conference Feb. 7, while local architect and business owner Charles Hendricks declared his campaign in January with a Facebook announcement. They will run for two of the three seats currently occupied by Democrats Deanna Reed and Richard Baugh and independent George Hirschmann.
Although Reed did not respond to requests for comment, Harrisonburg Democratic Committee Chair Alleyn Harned confirmed in an email to The Citizen last week that the mayor will seek re-election.
Baugh told The Citizen in January that he was still considering re-election. Hirschmann also told the Citizen he wasn’t ready to announce whether he’ll run for another term, but expects to decide by early March.
The Citizen reached out to the Harrisonburg City Republican Party and the party committee’s chairman multiple times to inquire about potential candidates but did not receive a response.
The Harrisonburg Democratic Committee will select its nominees for the three council seats for the November election in a firehouse primary scheduled for May 2. And the pair of newcomers — Benjamin and Hendricks — already have begun making their appeals to the party faithful.
Benjamin officially launched his first bid for elected office even before leaving college. The 20-year-old JMU senior expects to graduate in May with a Bachelor’s degree in political science.
“This is what I’m studying right now,” Benjamin said. “I may not have had a lot of experience out there, but I have interacted with our communities.”
Benjamin has participated in movements in Harrisonburg, such as the Global Climate Strike Campaign, which started with a rally at Court Square in September and since then has repeated every Friday. He solidified his decision to run after his experience tutoring a student through the Shenandoah Valley Migrant Education Program. Through it, Benjamin, the son of a Latino immigrant, found common ground with the students.
“I want to be a good example to these kids here in town,” Benjamin said. “It’s tough coming from an immigrant background, especially when you’re the first one born in the United States.”
Originally from Los Angeles, Benjamin grew up in Washington, D.C., before starting school at JMU. In Harrisonburg, he became enamored with the city’s international community, and was already familiar with the city’s refugee resettlement program. Benjamin said he plans to make inclusion a focus of his campaign, particularly encouraging more immigrant owned businesses downtown.
“You walk around sometimes, and the majority of businesses are owned by upper middle class – they tend to be white – people, and you know that came at the cost of wiping out African American businesses in the process of urban renewal in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Benjamin said. “You look around and you look for Latino businesses, or Kurdish businesses, they’re kind of on the outskirts.”
Benjamin said he envisions Harrisonburg becoming a cultural tourism hotspot for Virginia, and eventually wants to see a multicultural museum built downtown. Additionally, with his campaign, he wants to encourage and open up space for members of the international community to fill positions in the city, such as on the Planning Commission and Parks and Recreation Board.
Affordable housing is another priority in Benjamin’s campaign, which involves strategies to help Harrisonburg’s homeless population, as well as implementing rent control and raising standards for apartment buildings being constructed.
“They’re taking advantage of working class families, marginalized communities, and students” Benjamin said of some landlords. “We need to make sure that we’re taking appropriate legal steps to control the kinds of actions that they’re taking.”
Benjamin said Harrisonburg’s wider affordable housing crunch has been exacerbated by a lack of student housing on JMU’s campus, which he plans to urge the university’s administration to address if he’s elected to council.
“That will reduce the cars on our roads, and that will reduce the number of people having to live in single family homes throughout our city,” Benjamin said.
Changing zoning ordinances to encourage population density also could make Harrisonburg more environmentally friendly, he said. The council did create a new zone last year to allow for homes to be built on smaller lots.
If businesses and homes were closer together, such as with more mixed-use developments, it would encourage walking and biking and reduce car traffic, Luciano said.
“We should be able to walk and bike everywhere in our city,” Benjamin said. “American cities are designed around cars, and that’s wrong because that causes traffic, which is bad for the environment, and bad for a sense of community.”
Addressing climate change locally is another major focus in Benjamin’s campaign. He said he wants Harrisonburg to transition to an electric bus fleet, and generally upgrade the public transportation system. That would include getting more busses on the roads to run on time, hiring more drivers, and changing the schedules to address all city residents and not just JMU students.
His plan also includes urging JMU’s administration to invest in public transportation instead of constructing more parking decks on campus.
While he admitted his goals are expensive, Benjamin said the funding for his plans would involve two steps.
The first would be renegotiating the annual lump sum JMU pays to the city, which Benjamin said has been long overdue for a review. The second would be seeking federal block grants.
“I’m the best suited to be able to make use of that federal and state money in our city and be able to accomplish all this at as little cost to the residents as possible,” Benjamin said.
Hendricks’ campaign for City Council is rooted in his values as an architect.
“Our firm mission statement is that through design, we can build a better community,” Hendricks said.
It’s a skillset he said is needed in city hall, considering the number of building projects on the horizon. Those include constructing the new high school, revamping or replacing two parking decks downtown, completing the Greenway, and eventual replacement of some city sewer pipes.
Hendricks said sustainability is his expertise and would be one of his top priorities on city council.
“I want Harrisonburg to be a model city for sustainability and business, which creates a vibrant community,” Hendricks said. “Sustainability to me is about caring for creation.”
To Hendricks, constructing efficient buildings isn’t just about the brick and mortar but also extends to landscaping, waste management, parking lot design and transportation.
“Even though I’m not a planner, I have experience in doing all these things from doing green design to site-build projects in our community,” Hendricks said.
Hendricks has worked as an architect for 21 years and is one of three co-owners of Gaines Group Architects in Harrisonburg. He has won multiple awards from groups including the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Chamber of Commerce and the Shenandoah Valley Homebuilder’s Association.
If elected, he said he plans to look at the definition of historic structures and protect those that qualify from being demolished.
“The typical definition is 50 years and older, but I am open to a conversation about what makes sense for Harrisonburg,” he said. “These historic buildings especially in downtown should be saved as they make the fabric that create place.”
He also wants to revamp the city’s recycling system to send recycled material back to the manufacturer that created them and explore a citywide composting plan.
In addition to buildings, Hendricks is also focused on enriching Harrisonburg’s business community.
“The more robust our business community is, the more money they’re making, the more money they’re paying employees, the more taxes they’re paying because they’re making more money,” Hendricks said. “The rising tide raises all ships.”
Hendricks said he’s like to encourage more partnerships that might inspire struggling businesses to try new ideas and to keep new business owners informed about successful strategies.
Hendricks said his major emphasis on small businesses isn’t typical for many Democratic candidates but that his overall political philosophy aligns with the party.
“I think it should be because empowering business also empowers workers and Democrats are very much for worker’s rights, but if it’s not a strong business, you can’t support the worker,” Hendricks said. “I’m thinking of it from a different approach as a small business owner.”
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