An Interview With New Paltz Mayor Jason West

Conducted by Owen Thompson


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Jason West, a part-time house painter, first made national headlines in 2003 for getting out the student vote at SUNY New Paltz and riding it all the way to the mayor’s office. Because of his youth, his unconventional campaign strategy, and his membership in the Green Party of America, he was considered a hero to some and a novelty to others. On February 26, 2004, he returned to the headlines with a story that was sure to strengthen both of these labels: West became one of a handful of mayors around the country to throw their towels into the ring of the year’s hottest civil rights debate and perform gay marriages. Within a week, and amidst a national media blitz, West pled “not guilty” to 19 counts of solemnizing unlicensed marriages, a misdemeanor. Mr. West and I talk about his new found celebrity, civil rights, gay marriage, the role of students in community politics, the 2004 elections, and the future of his political career.

Owen Thompson: When you spoke at Bard College last October, you mentioned the way that Fox News treated you when you first got elected, as if your election was a kind of liberal sideshow, even asking you to hug a tree on camera.

Jason West: Right.

OT: Since this explosion in publicity on you in the last couple of months, how do you feel about your portrayal in the wider press, on a regional and national level?

JW: I think for the first... Generally, it’s been positive. Fox has been... I haven’t seen much of the footage, but they’re just one of half a dozen camera crews, so they got the same sound-bytes and quotes as everybody else got. The [Rupert Murdoch-owned New York] Post has been particularly nasty, but that’s what you expect from the Post. Generally, though, [the press] has stayed on the message and gotten accurate stories out there. For the most part.

I guess the only distortion I’ve seen is when the press shifted from articles about the civil rights issue and more human interest articles about me in particular. That’s when I stopped giving interviews and shut it down for the most part.

OT: What bothered you about [the stories focused on you]?

JW: Well, because the issue isn’t me. The issue is civil rights and human rights, and it’s not about what I was like when I was growing up.

OT: That leads me to my next question, which you might not be particularly fond of: How do you feel about the political celebrity that’s been foisted on you in the last couple of months? Has it turned out differently than you expected?

JW: Well, yeah. I mean, I never expected to get this amount of coverage for this. I thought it was old news by the time we jumped on. Massachusetts had already happened [referring to the Supreme Judicial Court’s February 4 ruling that a ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional]; San Francisco, New Mexico... I didn’t realize the kind of media coverage we would get here. But... It’s a novelty. The novelty will wear off. It’s already trailing down a little bit... At some point the press won’t be interested in calling, and there will be somebody else on the front pages.

OT: And do you think that will be the case if there is a victory in the legislature?

JW: Yeah. It’s not a matter of, “Now I’m a national figure and that’s how it’s going to stay.” It’s temporary; it’s a small window of time, and an opportunity to be in the press and to articulate this civil rights issue. So, I’m happy to do that. It’s just... The story’s going to go elsewhere, and it already has, to some extent.

OT: How has the public response been? Have you received a lot of hate mail or threatening messages since the publicity started?

JW: A little. For the most part, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve been sorting out all the e-mail, and it’s almost exactly ten to one in favor. The letters are about two or three to one... People have been writing in from all over the country.

OT: Did you ever expect, when you took office, or even when you were just considering a political career, that you would become known as a gay rights advocate?

JW: No, I had no idea.

OT: Besides surprising you, does that bother you?

JW: No, not at all. I’m happy to be an advocate for the issue. It’s an important issue. It doesn’t mean my work on other things has stopped. It just means it’s the only thing I’m getting press for.

OT: Well, you had gotten some press before that, for being a young, Green Party mayor. Has the Green Party been supportive of the gay marriage issue? Have they been vocal?

JW: Yeah, they have. Nationally, they’ve been advocating for this for years. We’ve gotten tons of support from Greens all over.

OT: Do you think any of the people working in your office are uncomfortable with the decision?

JW: If they are, I have no idea. They’ve been nothing but supportive so far.

OT: Getting back to the letters we mentioned earlier... For every ten of those positive messages, there is a negative one. Does it bother you to think that so many people in the country are lumping you in a group right now, you personally, with all these radicals threatening their most traditional values?

JW: No, it doesn’t bother me, because I am a radical. And their values... I mean, these people are convinced they’re doing what’s right, and I disagree with them. They’re perfectly welcome to write me letters and try to persuade me that I’m wrong. They haven’t been persuasive so far.

OT: Is there anything that could persuade you to change your stance?

JW: No, I don’t think so. Not unless the gay community itself rose up and said, “You’ve got to stop this. You’re doing harm.” Which hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to happen.

Students and the community in New Paltz politics

OT: What effect do you think all this will have on local politics in New Paltz and your own chance for reelection here? How much of the community has reacted negatively?

JW: Almost none. It’s been... On a twelve-hour notice, we had five hundred supporters and half-a-dozen protestors. Right outside here, on the first wedding day. At my arraignment, there were 1000 to 1500 supporters. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. I don’t that it will have much effect on my reelection, because I’m not up for reelection for another three years, but I think it will draw more people into getting involved in village politics, over all.

OT: You don’t think it will galvanize the older, more conservative voters, who have gotten lazy about voting in recent years? [When speaking at Bard in 2003, West attributed his victory in part to the stagnant state of politics in New Paltz, with a low voter turn-out split between the same two candidates for decades. -OT]

JW: No, because they were galvanized by our election victory. So we didn’t... The people who are opposed to this are the people who have been fighting us since day one. We’ve just made some people who were neutral about politics come out in support. We’re going to see higher voter turn-out in village elections, for example.

OT: There was a large number of students present for the rally at your arraignment. How have you seen the role of college students play out in this so far? What would you like to see happen with college students, regionally and around the country, in terms of their role in the gay rights movement?

JW: Well, what I want to see happen more than anything with college students is for them to get off their campus and get more involved with the community that surrounds their college. I think there’s been no distinction, in my mind, between the college activists and the community organizers who have been helping out here in the village. College students have played the exact same role as the community organizers: Helping to arrange the weddings, helping with press, getting the message out and organizing rallies in support. The important role is not college students, the important role is the communities, which includes college students. I think that in Tivoli and Red Hook, there’s the same potential, as long as students don’t remain ghetto-ized on their campus and out of touch with their surrounding area.

OT: Why do you think it is that the gay marriage issue has taken off in New Paltz and not in other areas? Why have other politicians been reluctant, and why have so few other communities gotten involved?

JW: Other communities have. We’ve seen in New Mexico--since we’ve done this, Asbury Park, New Jersey--Seattle, Portland, other towns in New York. Other communities are jumping on board here.

OT: After New Paltz, what are your ambitions, if any, in pursuing further a career in politics? Do you want to stay on a local level?

JW: Well, I have three years left. I plan to run for a second term. Seven years away is a little too long... I like politics.

OT: Do you see SUNY New Paltz continuing to play a role in community politics?

JW: Yeah, the same role they’ve always played. The school’s a part of the community. They’re free to vote and participate as much as anybody else.

OT: If, for whatever reason, you were not reelected in three years, do think there’s a chance that New Paltz could still have a leadership that supported gay marriage?

JW: I don’t think that anyone who opposed gay marriage could get elected in New Paltz at this point.

OT: Does it make you uncomfortable, or do you think it makes the inhabitants of New Paltz uncomfortable, that gay marriage is the issue that’s putting them on the map?

JW: Not at all. There are people who have said they’re uncomfortable; but again, these are the people who were angry that we were elected in the first place. They’ve just found another issue to be angry about.

OT: Do you have any regrets so far in your decision?

JW: Nope, not at all. Just seeing the looks on these people’s faces when I married them--I couldn’t possibly have any regrets. Meeting the couples, being able to help them get married, has been the best part of this.

Eliot Spitzer, George W. Bush, and John Kerry: Opponents of gay marriage

OT: It’s been a month since you performed the first marriages. Do you hold to your view that New York’s constitution defends gay marriage?

JW: The constitution requires it. And the Department of Health is breaking the law by not issuing marriage licenses. They’re discriminating in issuing licenses. New York State doesn’t have what’s called a defensive marriage act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Marriage is undefined in New York.

OT: How do you feel, then, about the position [New York State Attorney General] Eliot Spitzer’s been taking on this? Do you think he’s been too slow to make up his mind?

JW: No, I think he is... personally, he’s in favor of same-sex marriages. He’s told me so, and I believe him. But he’s the presumptive nominee for the Democrats for governor, so he’s got some serious political calculations to make. At the end of the day, he’s gotta decide if he’s going to do what’s right, or what’s politically expedient. And hopefully the two are the same thing, hopefully it’ll be a situation where he feels he can’t be elected governor if he opposes gay marriage. It’s unclear whether that’s the case.

OT: How do see the presidential elections in November playing out in this? Is there a much better chance for gay marriage being legalized if Kerry--

JW: No. [shrugs] Kerry’s come out as opposed to gay marriage. He’s said so publicly. So in this case, in terms of gay marriage, it doesn’t matter who’s elected. Kerry probably won’t push as hard for a constitutional ammendment banning it, but Bush is just posturing, anyway. He’s not actually going to get a constitutional ammendment banning gay marriage.

OT: You don’t believe it’s possible.

JW: It’s not possible.

OT: Because it’s unconstitutional, or...?

JW: No, because it’s just too difficult. He doesn’t have the support needed to get it. If it passes both Houses of Congress, it has to be ratified by three quarters of the state legislatures. And I don’t think you’re going to get seventy-five percent of the states using the constitution this way, especially when you’ve got prominent conservative Republicans--Senator [Chuck] Hagel from Nebraska, Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee--saying they’re personally opposed to gay marriage, and they’re also opposed to using the constitution this way. So he’s split his own party. He doesn’t have the political power, the political strength, to get this thing passed.

OT: Do you think his negative stand on this issue will hurt him in November?

JW: Uh-huh. I think so. A million gays and lesbians voted for him in 2000. And he just... pissed off a million of his supporters. To court a base who’s going to vote for him no matter what. So he didn’t gain any supporters, and he lost, [exhales sharply and pauses] hopefully, up to a million of them.

OT: Which is well over what the spread between him and Gore was last time.

JW: Yeah. He lost the election the first time. So let’s hope he loses by an even bigger margin this time around.

OT: So--

At this point, West interrupts me. The tone of his voice changes suddenly, and I’m reminded of his speech at Bard, the one in which he told student voters that it was time to stop giving the Democrats “one more chance, year after year.” For the first time in the course of the interview, he is genuinely eager to be telling me something. The following is an opinion he’s given to several reporters, but unlike on the topic of gay marriage, he does not seem in the least bit tired of repeating himself.

JW: --But it is important to realize that, at the end of the day, if you were a single-issue voter--if all that mattered to you was gay marriage, it honestly doesn’t matter if Kerry or Bush is the president. They’re both opposed to gay marriage, and they’re both unable to do anything about their personal views.

OT: Then you see it as a personal view for Kerry?

JW: Yeah... I often don’t take what politicians say at face value, because it’s easy enough to undermine it; you look at how they voted versus what they actually say, and just always believe what they vote, not what they say. Kerry voted for the Defensive Marriage Act in Congress. Yeah, I think he’s opposed to gay marriage.

The future

OT: Coming back to New Paltz, are you concerned that you’ll be convicted of the charges brought against you [nineteen counts of solemnizing couples without licenses, a misdemeanor]?

JW: No, I’m not concerned at all.

OT: And why is that?

JW: One, it won’t hold up in court. And two, on the off chance that it does hold up, because I wouldn’t have changed anything [I did] anyway. It doesn’t matter one way or the other.

OT: Are you willing to keep appealing this case to the highest level?

JW: Uh-huh. I have a very good law firm, with plenty of resources at its disposal, and we’re willing to fight this as high as it needs to go.

OT: My last question: Is this, your stand on gay rights, what you want to be remembered for when your political career is over, however many years down the road?

A long pause follows this question, and West smiles for the first time since shaking my hand. This is the first question he’s really had to think about, the first time his eyes show more thoughtfulness than annoyance.

JW: I think I want it to be one of the things I’m remembered for, even if it’s just in the village, I’m not really thinking any bigger than that... Making sure, at the end of our term, that we’ve turned the Village of New Paltz into an environmental and sustainable community, from the way we pave the roads to the stores and businesses we build, that’s what I really want to be remembered for.

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