As city voting patterns change, two council candidates face an increasingly difficult task: win as non-Democrats

George Hirschmann (I) and Kathleen Kelley (R) are the non-Democrats in this year’s race for Harrisonburg City Council. (Hirschmann file photo//Kelley photo courtesy of Kathleen Kelley)

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

If a decade-long trend holds true, two candidates in this year’s five-way race for three seats on the Harrisonburg City Council will face longer odds than the three Democratic nominees chosen in the party’s recent primary.

Kathleen Kelley – an integrative medicine physician – announced her candidacy earlier this month as the first Republican candidate to run for city council since 2014. In May, Councilman George Hirschmann, a former WHSV-TV 3 weatherman, announced that he would seek reelection, running again as an Independent.

Since 2008, when three Democrats swept an eight-candidate race, Democratic candidates have won 10 of the 15 total city council seats up for election. Independent candidates have won three times (including Hirschmann in 2016), while a Republican has been elected twice (former Mayor Ted Byrd, in 2010 and 2014).

Kelley and Hirschmann will face Mayor Deanna Reed, running for a second term, along with newcomers Charles Hendricks and Laura Dent.

Party affiliation partially a tactical decision for incumbent

George Hirschmann

Hirschmann, a self-proclaimed moderate conservative, had publicly considered running for reelection as a Republican but eventually decided he had sufficient time to collect the 125 signatures required to qualify again as an Independent. Hirschmann also figured his chances of winning would be better as an Independent, which he attributes in part to the left-leaning influence of James Madison University on Harrisonburg’s electorate.

“When you look at the city, it wasn’t always the liberal city that it is now, but it’s become that, and it’s become difficult to run for anything in this city if you’re not wearing a blue shirt,” Hirschmann said.

Hirschmann plans to focus on public spending as the city navigates very trying economic times caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re in a very critical time now in the city, as I think every city in the country is too,” Hirschmann said. “It’s going to take two, three, four years to really come around, and then with no food tax, then you’re down to the property taxes, and that’s not going to carry it. So, it’s going to be a tough time to get everyone back to work.”

Kelley recognizes longshot nature of campaign

Kathleen Kelley

Kelley told The Citizen she was encouraged by multiple people to run for city council, thanks in part to her outspoken reputation (as evidenced by her Facebook posts on polarizing issues). Skeptical at first, she compared her initial reaction to Star Trek character Dr. McCoy:

“I’m a doctor, Jim, not a bricklayer,” she joked.

She reconsidered in the days leading up to the filing deadline, after, she said, Harrisonburg Republican Committee Chair Jeffery Mayfield urged her to announce her candidacy. (Mayfield did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Kelley acknowledged that it require an upset for her to win.

“I think most people have given up because the town hasn’t run a Republican in years,” she said.

Although she feels some pressure as the city’s first Republican candidate in several years, Kelley said her ambitions are not limited to pleasing those in her party.

“I don’t want to let people down. You want to do what’s best for the community and listen to people’s concerns and see how you want to solve those issues in an affordable and effective way,” Kelley said. “My concern is with my neighbor, the other people in Harrisonburg, it’s not letting the party down. The question is: can I do an effective job?”  

Kelley, an internal medicine doctor affiliated with Sentara, has lived in Harrisonburg since 1997, when she moved from Northern Virginia after seeing a newspaper ad recruiting doctors to the Valley. Before medical school, she worked as a chemical and environmental engineer for Eastman Kodak in her hometown of Rochester, N.Y.

“I’m not afraid to speak up. I’m a problem solver, that’s my job right now,” Kelley said. “I’m good at looking at things from different angles and I can be a voice of reason.”

She said her campaign will focus on issues affecting small business, as well as promoting a stronger sense of community in Harrisonburg while working to make the city more resilient by supporting a strong economy. Kelley is critical of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that “closing everything was a bit draconian.”

At local level, party less important?

Councilman Ted Byrd, with Hirschmann in the background, in a 2018 file photo.

For Ted Byrd, a Republican who served three terms on city council before retiring at the end of 2018, running a successful campaign has primarily to do with a candidate’s level of awareness of local issues.

“At the local level, my opinion is not so much party, it’s recognizing what the local issues are and putting forward a plan to address them,” Byrd said. “It’s at this level where the government services meet the people. You have to be willing to put out exactly what you think is the direction Harrisonburg needs to go toward, or if it could be doing better than it currently is.”

According to Bobbi Gentry, a professor of political science at Bridgewater College, the key to reaching across the aisle in local elections depends on a candidate’s ability to communicate shared values.

“The question is: how do you distinguish yourself, and how do you connect to the people you want to serve?” she said. “You need to have a presence in the community, it’s more than just showing up.”

That makes a candidate’s campaign abilities, rather than party identification, especially significant at the local level.

“It’s all about their traits, their family situation, their background,” Gentry said. “There’s an interesting thing that happens in local campaigns. It’s not necessarily the same as the state or national level, because in local campaigns, people want to know that you’re from and that you know the area.”

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