Democratic council candidates bring different experiences, priorities in advance of Wednesday’s virtual town hall forum

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

The five Democratic candidates running for Harrisonburg’s City Council will have their chance to differentiate themselves and show voters what they know about — and envision for — Harrisonburg’s city government a virtual town hall Wednesday night. At this point it’s the only joint appearance before city Democrats vote by email or mail by May 16 in that party’s social distancing version of a firehouse primary.  

The candidates — incumbents Deanna Reed and Richard Baugh and newcomers Charles Hendricks, Luciano Benjamin, and Laura Dent — are vying for three Democratic nominations to be on the general election ballot in November for to the three council seats whose terms are up. 

The virtual forum, hosted by The Citizen and JMU’s Madison Center for Civic Engagement & Dukes Vote, will be streamed on Facebook and starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The candidates will face questions about issues that have faced the city both before and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Charles Hendricks, left, and Luciano Benjamin, right, were first jump into the council race earlier this year.

Hendricks – a local architect and business owner — and Benjamin — a JMU student and activist — were the first to announce their campaigns earlier this year, and The Citizen interviewed both about their backgrounds and their campaign platforms. Benjamin, a JMU senior, has stressed environmental issues and making Harrisonburg more affordable and inclusive. Hendricks, an architect, has focused on planning, development and encouraging business innovation. 

Since those two began campaigning in January and February, though, the ballot has gotten more crowded. Dent — a technical writer and adjunct instructor at James Madison University —  was the most recent political newcomer to announce her candidacy in March.

Reed and Baugh both announced their re-election campaigns in March, and currently occupy two of the three council seats that will be up for grabs. The third belongs to independent George Hirschmann, who told The Citizen he will make a decision in the coming weeks about seeking another term. 

Laura Dent

Dent said she decided to run for council after some cajoling from community leaders and after her schedule opened up after being let go from her part time job at Rosetta Stone. 

“I thought: ‘well, maybe I have time after all,’” Dent said. “I looked at it as one door closes, and another one opens.”

Dent previously worked at Rosetta Stone full time until 2012 when she was laid off, then became a freelance technical writer and began teaching classes in JMU’s Computer Science department. 

After Rosetta Stone laid off Dent and others in 2012, community leaders reached out to see how to help keep them in Harrisonburg. The collaborative effort, Dent said, inspired some of the values in her campaign. In particular, she said a similar approach could help Harrisonburg businesses that have had to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I really appreciated the resources the city had available to help me set up my own business, and I would like to continue the support of small businesses getting back on their feet,” Dent said. 

Dent said her campaign is rooted in three main values – sustainability, equity, and compassion – which she said can be achieved through cooperation between the city’s main stakeholders.

“I’m familiar with the collaboration that happens between business, academia, and government, and I have experience in all three of those venues,” Dent said. “That’s a good perspective to have.”    

Dent said she wants to help the city get federal loans and grants, such as funding to upgrade Harrisonburg’s public transportation with renewable energy. 

Environmental issues are central to Dent’s priorities. She said she wants to see the city to switch to 30% renewable energy by 2022, which see views as a stepping stone to the “50 by 25 movement,” in which activists have called for Harrisonburg to switch to 50 percent renewable energy by 2025.

“Once city council makes that mandate, the utilities have to comply,” she said. “So we have a lot more power than it might seem to determine that we will use renewable energy.”

Her other priorities include affordable housing, where she hopes to incentivize developers in the city to built multifamily units. 

Deanna Reed

Deanna Reed announces her re-election in March. (File photo)

Reed is finishing up her first four-year term on city council, as well as her second consecutive two-year term as mayor. She said she wanted to run again to continue projects already in motion. 

“I really feel good about the direction that this council is going, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Reed said. “There are still some issues I’m passionate about and I want to continue to work on, and I just wanted to continue serving my community.”

Reed’s top priorities include tackling affordable housing and homelessness and education. She said she still hopes to continue working to establish a low barrier shelter in the city, where people can stay without being tested for substances or being turned away because of a criminal record. And she said she is also focused on the continuing efforts to build a new high school, even as construction has been delayed because of the economic ripple effect COVID-19 caused.

“I think delaying the project was the right thing to do,” Reed said. 

Reed said her main mission is retaining Harrisonburg’s gains from her time on council. 

“Everybody knows my passion is education, my passion is opportunity, and my passion is community,” Reed said. “I really want to make sure Harrisonburg is a place that people to come to and want to stay. I just hope I get to continue that for another four years.”

Richard Baugh

Council member Richard Baugh speaks at a Harrisonburg City Council meeting on Sept. 24, 2019.

Baugh had gone back and forth as he weighed his decision to run for re-election to Harrisonburg’s City Council, but when the deadline closed in as the COVID-19 pandemic dealt an economic blow to the city, he said his choice was easy. 

“I had a deadline to make a decision, and I was seriously considering not running when all of this hit,” Baugh said. “But then I felt like I would be turning my back on the community at a time when that just wasn’t the right thing to do.”

Baugh is in his third term and recalled the 2008 recession as he compared it to the economic challenges Harrisonburg is facing as he his running for a fourth term.

“My first budget was the first full recession budget, and I would describe my first four years as just trying to keep our head above water,” he said. 

But despite working on his 12th city budget, he said this year’s will be unprecedented. 

“What we’re going to be discussing is all of the things we would normally spend money on that we’re not going to be able to spend money on,” Baugh said. “I’m like everybody these days, I’m spending all sorts of time trying to follow the larger issues.”    

Clarification: The wording about the delay in the new high school’s construction was updated to take out any reference to the timeline. The School Board agreed to delay the project by a year but the board and the construction firm, Nielsen Builders, could chose to terminate the contract if it goes beyond a year.

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