By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor, with additional reporting by Sabriya McKoy
Harrisonburg City Council member George Hirschmann has yet to find out for sure if he’ll serve a second term. But, in characteristic style, Hirschmann is unfazed by the uncertainty. In fact, even if he wins, he has an exit strategy to retire from politics after the next four-year term.
As of Wednesday, though, he still held a 300-vote lead over Democratic candidate Charles Hendricks for the third and last available seat on the council, but mail-in ballots will still be counted through Friday, as long as they were postmarked by Election Day.
Hirschmann was leading all five council candidates early in the night, based on the more than 5,600 votes cast in person on Tuesday. He won five of Harrisonburg’s eight precincts and narrowly finished second to Mayor Deanna Reed in two others. But once results from the 11,000 early voting and absentee ballots were announced, Hirschmann dropped from first to third. And it’s still possible he could fall to fourth in the three-seat race, depending on how many of the final absentee ballots come in by Friday.
“I’m optimistic,” Hirschmann said. “We suspect that it should go through as it stands now, but there’s always room for surprises.”
Deanna Reed, who has served as mayor for the past four years, received the most votes in Tuesday’s count with 8,904, followed by newcomer Laura Dent, a community activist and a professor at JMU, with 7,895 votes. Hirschmann received 7,044 votes, which was 298 ahead of Hendricks.
Hirschmann said after a grueling last few weeks of door-knocking, talking to early voters at city hall, and attending outdoor events, he was “out like a light” on Election Night, only getting up to feed his cats – Bert and Ernie – before retiring for the evening. He said he had a bit more pep in his step the next morning, though.
“I’m feeling much better,” he said. “The experience was good. I had some great moments talking to people as they were coming in to vote. I learned a great deal.”
Even though he could be unseated by Hendricks once all the votes are counted, Hirschmann said he would have been happy to work alongside him on council, “because you can talk and have a conversation with him … Laura’s a little different.”
Dent, for her part, campaigned vigorously down the stretch with door-to-door canvassing and text-messaging.
“I’ve had this feeling all along that I get into campaign mode, and I say ‘alright, we’ve got to do this thing, we’ve got to win this thing,’” Dent told The Citizen late Tuesday night. “I would get this feeling like I’m a dog chasing a car. What am I gonna do if I catch it? And now, it looks like I caught it.”
Reed, the top vote-getter so far, told The Citizen she’s looking forward to continuing to work on her agenda, starting with helping the community recover from the economic and health effects — as well as disruptions to education — caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
If Hirschmann is indeed re-elected when the local vote count is certified by next Tuesday, he’ll return to the council as the only non-Democrat. He said, tongue-in-cheek, that his job then would be to “ensure that I irritate some people.”
“You start to get used to it, some of the mental abuse that you go through” as a non-Democrat, he added. For one, Hirschmann said, the council’s decision to reinstate Deanna Reed for a second term as mayor, rather than considering him for the position, felt like a “coup.”
“That was just to let me know, to put me in my place. And I don’t think those attitudes are healthy,” he said. “I pick up on that, and that’s not fun.”
Regardless of how this election pans out, Hirschmann said he doesn’t plan to run for council again. Part of him is looking forward to retirement when he can “sit around the house in my underwear and watch TV,” he said.
Calm amid the voting divide
Voting in Harrisonburg and surrounding precincts on Tuesday went peacefully and orderly. More than 5,600 people voted in person in Harrisonburg’s eight precincts — compared to the more than 11,000 who cast ballots during the early voting period that started Sept. 18.
At the voting precinct on JMU’s campus at the Convocation Center, a steady stream of voters, mostly students, walked in to cast their ballots. For some, like Kyle Towler, it was their first time voting in a presidential race.
Towler stood at the entrance of the Convo to ensure voters had everything accounted for before submitting their ballot.
“I recommended my family and friends to vote early because I didn’t know how voting would be affected by the virus.”
Fewer than 270 people voted at that precinct Tuesday, which was the fewest of Harrisonburg’s eight precincts.
Anna Connole, a democracy fellow at JMU Civic, stood outside the polling center to answer any questions students might have about the process. Connole, who has served in that role in previous elections, said Tuesday was unlike any other.
“Compared to past elections, I’m used to seeing long lines and more discussion occurring,” she said.
Connor Sheehy, a Republican volunteer who came to hand out sample ballots, said he wanted to inform people about voting and offer the ballots to those who want to support Republicans. He said he was not surprised at the emotions people had about the election.
“I think everyone knows and feels that the elections are pretty polarized,” Sheehy said. “Just as it was during the 2016 elections, reading about the elections makes it seem worse than it is.”
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