Editor’s note: This article is part of The Citizen’s series of profile articles looking at the five candidates running for three positions on the Harrisonburg City Council.
By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
George Hirschmann, the city council member running for re-election as an independent, cast one of the two dissenting votes when the council narrowly approved the high school’s construction in December. And while he said he’d rather see the city build an annex than a separate new high school, it’s not that he’s against investing tax dollars in the community.
He said he wants to spend money on pay raises or incentives to city educators, as well as firefighters and police.
“I look at teachers. They’ve been underpaid for a while now, and they’ve been through a heck of a lot with this, trying to learn how to teach virtually,” he said.
Hirschmann is one of five candidates vying for the three Harrisonburg City Council seats up for re-election on Nov. 3. But city council member is just the latest position in a long, varied list of jobs he’s held: from serving in the Navy to working odd jobs; from performing in Los Angeles comedy clubs to broadcasting Harrisonburg’s weather. Hirschmann credits his experiences for allowing him to be flexible and collaborative as an elected official.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different people. I mean, from plumbing and electricity, to acting coaches and directors and producers, and you get into weather and you’ve got personalities you’re playing with there,” he told The Citizen.
Hirschmann has several priorities in his campaign for re-election: spurring economic recovery, addressing homelessness and affordable housing, providing higher pay for public servants and maintaining a balanced budget with revenue hit hard by the pandemic. And he said he wants to keep that budget balanced without raising tax rates for city residents, such as the one that would be necessary to re-start construction on the new high school.
As a self-styled “conservative independent,” Hirschmann has regularly found himself representing viewpoints that contradict others on the council. In January, he requested that the council consider a resolution from the Harrisonburg Republican Party, which would declare the city a Second Amendment sanctuary. The council discussed but didn’t vote on the resolution, and proponents stood up and shouted over Mayor Deanna Reed when she reprimanded disgruntled murmurs in the audience.
Hirschmann said he caught some flak for how that played out.
Role on council
He’s also taken up for residents who use and support the Heritage Oaks Golf Course, which has been controversial since opening in 2001, in part because of how much money it costs the city each year.
At a city council meeting in May, when the council decided to seek a consultant to look into scaling back the course’s operations, Hirschmann said that closing it “takes a swing at a part of our population in the city that uses it and enjoys it.”
But Council Member Chris Jones pointed out that the cost to customers to play a round of golf is “more expensive than anything else that we subsidize.”
At another meeting in July, though, Hirschmann stood with other council members to ask City Manager Eric Campbell to look into complaints from residents – alleging black mold, bedbug infestations and other problems – at the Lineweaver apartment building, which is run by the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
“We keep hearing the same complaints … but now I think it’s a little bit too much,” Reed said.
“I’m just a little appalled by what I’ve heard tonight, and I feel bad for people in that building,” Hirschmann added.
Hirschmann was the only city council member to speak at a Republican-led “Back the Blue” rally in August, at which he traced back his “appreciation for the men in blue” to his father, who was with the Pennsylvania State Police for 39 years.
But Hirschmann has also shown up for causes with plenty of support from people on different parts of the political spectrum – such as the debate over the Denton building’s future and the broader issues of homelessness and affordable housing. Early in the pandemic, he made an appeal to property owners with large, empty buildings to consider letting the city use their space to shelter homeless residents.
Now, Hirschmann said he’s working with the nonprofit organization Faith in Action, and that group’s members “have a good idea as far as affordable housing and doing it through a trust fund.”
He said they’re also looking at a church that may be for sale “that would make a very good homeless shelter, so we’re trying to see how we would get to finance that. And that would be a huge help.”
Hirschmann also sits on a number of commissions as a city council representative. The Massanutten Regional Library Board and the Metropolitan Planning Organization are two of his favorites, he said, because he enjoys “learning about the city and how it runs.
“I say ‘wow’ a lot in those meetings,” he said.
From comedy to weather
Hirschmann attended La Salle University in Philadelphia. He earned a degree in marketing, then served in the U.S. Navy for two years, spending part of that time as a public relations officer in Lakehurst, N.J. After getting out of the service, he got a job selling computers for IBM in the early 1970s. It was there, in New York City, that he found the career he’d chase for the next 30 years: comedy.
“They had open mic nights, and you start going out, and at that point there were singers and comics and whoever,” Hirschmann said. “You bounce around different places. Nobody made any money. And then you get up and go to work in the morning.”
One of Hirschmann’s idols, the comedian and host of “The Tonight Show” Johnny Carson, moved to California with the show in 1972. Hirschmann followed.
“I said, hey, there’s something going on out on the West Coast. And I just packed it in,” he said. “I sold my furniture – whatever I could get rid of. I went home and saw Mom and Dad for a couple weeks in Pennsylvania, I got in the car, and I drove to Los Angeles.”
He worked different jobs to get by: at a Sheraton Hotel in San Diego, managing apartment buildings in Los Angeles, assisting an electrician and plumber — all while performing in comedy clubs. He also got side work acting in commercials and television shows like “Married with Children” and “General Hospital.” He modeled in advertisements for Kool cigarettes that ended up on billboards and in Playboy magazine. He was the Orkin Pest Control man for a few years.
“I’d jump out of a car, running, and kill a roach or something,” he recalled fondly.
While living in the heart of the entertainment industry, he met some of the premiere comics of the day.
“Jay Leno, Dave Letterman, Freddie Prinze – I have pictures of him with my parents … Jerry Seinfeld, he did okay,” Hirschmann said with a laugh. “We played baseball a few times.”
Besides comedy clubs, Hirschmann said he worked on a few cruise ships entertaining passengers, and did some touring on the road – once, with Robin Williams.
“And Robin was a nutcase, I mean, he was brilliant. It’s just a shame,” Hirschmann said. “He could take over a club, just, wow.”
After three decades of the entertainment life, Hirschmann began to think about how he’d “cover the end” of his career. A comic friend who had become a weatherman suggested Hirschmann look into meteorology, so he earned his accreditation from Mississippi State University and found a job with WHSV in Harrisonburg.
“It’s a good city, I mean, what a great place,” Hirschmann said.
Hirschmann was the city’s weatherman for 16 years before retiring and turning his attention toward local government. Part of his motivation to run as an independent was a desire to work “both sides of the aisle,” which he said seems even harder now than when he was first elected in 2016.
To that end, Hirschmann has a new catchphrase these days, which he heard in a recent virtual Rotary Club seminar: “what happened in your life that makes you think the way you do?”
“I will sit and talk to anybody about anything, but I won’t yell and I don’t want to argue. We can talk,” Hirschmann said. “And the idea of his question is, if you understand why people think the way they do, then it gives you a little insight for your own life, and some place to break down the polarity.”
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