Mayor With a Mission

By Robert Sullivan, New York Times Magazine, 3/28/04.

Jason West, the mayor of the little Hudson Valley village of New Paltz who married 25 gay couples last month before receiving a court injunction to stop, has been thinking about gay marriage for a long time. In fact, immediately after taking office last summer, the two things the 27-year-old asked his new village attorney to check on were, first, the state and local beaver trapping laws, since a dog had recently been caught and killed in a beaver trap on the old Bienstock property -- a huge New Paltz scandal that was soon labeled Beavergate; and second, whether a mayor could perform gay marriages. The attorney, Spencer McLaughlin, is a Republican legislator from Orange County and a former deputy executive director of the New York City Human Rights Commission under Ed Koch. That West would turn to a Republican for advice was a surprise to the people who thought the mayor, who was elected on the Green Party line, was a radical liberal activist about to turn the town into a socialist enclave. In his reply to West, McLaughlin noted that the law is unclear. ''That's because the laws were written around the late 19th century, and no one ever conceived of wanting to do this then,'' McLaughlin said recently. The attorney ended his memo to mayor saying, ''That's a very long-winded explanation of why you can't perform a same-sex marriage, but does not address the issue of whether you should or not.''

Gay marriage was also one of the issues West supported during his two ill-fated campaigns for State Assembly in 2000 and 2002 -- along with free education to the Ph.D. level and an end to corporate pollution. His campaign slogan was ''Forget the Lesser Evil -- Choose the Greater Good,'' and as he likes to say, ''I lost by a landslide.'' And back when he was in college in the late 90's at the State University of New York at New Paltz, he was known as a guy who could always be counted on to show up at the latest protest -- resisting the arrival of a new Starbucks, for example. In 1998, a local activist and gay rights organizer, Gale McGovern, asked West to help her plan a protest against a visit to a New Paltz bookstore by Gov. George Pataki, who along with state Republicans had criticized the women's studies department at the university for a conference it had organized on women's sexuality. West decided to serve as host of the event. ''He said to me recently that that was when he first started to think about organizing,'' McGovern said.

West has been a house painter since he was 15 -- he paints alone, often without even a radio -- and his workday uniform rarely changes: paint-splattered pants, T-shirt and worn tan Carhartt jacket that is functional as opposed to fashionable. He was an artist in high school, though he has the slouchless demeanor of a former jock. He is tall, and a cinch to spot on Main Street in New Paltz, a 6,000-person village -- of students and small-business owners, college professors and New York City transplants -- 80 miles north of New York City along the Wallkill River. It has been fertile ground for activism since the Vietnam era and even as far back as the Civil War, when abolitionists ran the underground railroad in the nearby hills. In town, West waves and is glad-handed by restaurant owners and shopkeepers, who have gotten over their initial fears that he might ban capitalism -- and he is now even semi-memorialized: on the day in early March when he was ordered to appear in court on charges of illegally marrying gay couples, the Gilded Otter, the local brewery, was selling Get Out of Jail Ale.

It may seem that the gay-marriage issue popped up out of nowhere in New Paltz, and that it is becoming more complicated with every news cycle. The Ulster County district attorney, Donald A. Williams, who originally charged West for marrying without licenses, most recently brought the same charges against two Unitarian ministers for marrying couples in New Paltz after West decided to stop doing so until the injunction against him is lifted. But if you stop the mayor on the street and ask him if he ever thought about gay marriage before he performed New York State's first gay weddings, he gives you a look that is part incredulous, part perturbed; asking Jason West if he has thought about gay marriage is like asking him if he has thought about renewable energy sources or the evils of global capitalism. ''This is what gets me,'' he said. ''I've always been for gay marriage. I mean, it's just the right thing to do.''

Though West's critics have labeled him an opportunist, his sister, Amanda, who is 24 and a third-grade teacher in Schenectady, N.Y., is amazed at the accusations. ''People who are coming on TV and saying, 'Oh, he's a young mayor and he doesn't know what he's talking about' and 'He's just doing this for attention' -- well, they obviously have never had a conversation with him.'' His friends wonder what took him so long. Patrick Wadden is the managing director of Arm-of -the-Sea Theater, a puppet company that counts West as a member. The group is based in Saugerties, N.Y., a town 30 miles up the Hudson from New Paltz, and it writes and performs plays on, in Wadden's words, ''the poetry, politics and history of the Hudson River,'' among other things.

''Jason figured out a while ago that it was possible to do local politics in a new way,'' Wadden said. ''He is totally dedicated to bringing integrity to the body politic.'' West is also a dedicated reader of political case studies, even when touring with his fellow puppeteers. ''On the bus last year,'' Wadden said, ''he was sitting there reading Taylor Branch's two-part history of the civil rights movement.''

For West, the past is a model, a source of strategies and full of moments when politics and activism intersect. He doesn't see a difference between the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement, or any other movement, for that matter. ''You have to know the history,'' West said, sitting in his office in the Village Municipal Building -- empty coffee mugs litter the desk; the e-mail in-box count is over 200 and a poster from an elementary school says: ''We like that you told us what it is like to be mayor. We love you.'' ''Activism doesn't begin in the 60's,'' he went on to say. ''There's the labor movement in the 30's. There's anarchism in the early part of the last century. The populist movement in the 1880's. Reconstruction. The suffragists, and all the way back to the Revolutionary War. It's all part of the same movement.''

Gay marriage is a controversial issue in the presidential race, and now in state courts, but according to polls, for people between 18 and 29, gay marriage is not such a big deal. That's the way Mayor West says he thinks about it. West, who is straight, knew a few couples who were talking about commitment ceremonies, including Billiam van Roestenberg and Jeffrey S. McGowan -- the couple who would ultimately be the first to be married by West on Feb. 27. Van Roestenberg first met West in 2000 after West took part in a debate with candidates for the State Assembly and spoke in support of gay marriage. Later, West painted the couple's home. ''He's so meticulous,'' Van Roestenberg said.

They saw each other occasionally: West shops at the food co-op where Van Roestenberg sells organic eggs. ''He was always reading legal books,'' Van Roestenberg said. When West was elected mayor, he began studying the state laws regarding marriage and partnerships. ''You can read them online,'' he said, ''on the State Assembly's Web site.'' Then last summer,Van Roestenberg invited West to the commitment ceremony they were beginning to plan. Eventually they decided on a summer ceremony, and West suggested that he might officiate.

But when the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided in favor of gay marriage, and then a few weeks later, gay marriages were performed in San Francisco, and then President Bush broached the idea of a constitutional ban against gay marriage, West realized he ''had to speed things up.'' He asked McGowan and van Roestenberg, ''Do you still want to do this?''

Meanwhile, Gale McGovern, the gay rights activist, was calling around seeing if gay couples she knew wanted to commit to ceremonies she would help organize. She got in touch with West. ''He told me he was one call away from doing it himself,'' she said. ''I just jumped over to his train.''

West called the American Civil Liberties Union, and James Esseks picked up the phone. ''He said, 'Hi, this is Jason West and I am the mayor of New Paltz and I want to perform gay marriages,''' Esseks recalled. ''He clearly had read the New York domestic relations law, and he understood the difference between having a marriage license and solemnizing.'' West had studied the contradiction in the law: marriage can be solemnized in New York State by a mayor, clergy member or justice of the peace, and a couple do not need a license for their union to be recognized as legal; yet, it is illegal to marry a couple without a license.

West began calling law firms on Monday of the last week of February; he told the lawyers that he did not want the marriages to cost the village money. By Thursday of that week, he secured the assistance of E. Joshua Rosenkranz. ''I thought, This is not your typical politician,'' Rosenkranz said.

That day, without discussing his decision with the town board, West faxed out a news release saying that he was going to begin marrying couples the following day. This was the move that continues to draw charges of grandstanding. Robert E. Hebel, a non-Green Party village trustee, is now trying to have West removed from office. He opposes using New Paltz village facilities for what he calls gay rights activism and argues that West circumvented the board.

Rosenkranz soon learned that the county district attorney, Williams, was considering prosecuting West if he went ahead with his plan. One of West's advisers suggested that the mayor marry dozens of couples all at once, to quickly establish a legal precedent, before he could be arrested. West declined, not wanting to look like the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. ''I want to marry these couples with dignity,'' he said.

McGowan and van Roestenberg lent West some dress shoes and a tie. Rebecca Rotzler, the village's deputy mayor and a Green Party member who was one of the two other Greens elected to the village board with West, helped set up a stage and chairs at the village's Peace Park. West was not arrested. At the end of the ceremonies, an electric piano played ''Imagine,'' the sound system breaking up as reporters trampled the electric cables.

Five days later, West marched into Village Municipal Court -- to be arraigned on charges of solemnizing marriages without licenses. James Fallarino, co-executive chairman of the Queer Student Union, who showed up at the weddings with gay and straight students, said: ''We've always known that Jason West supported us. We just didn't know how he was going to show that support.''

West grew up in Latham, N.Y., a suburban town just north of Albany. His earliest memories include the blast furnace he saw when his mother took him to pick up his father at the steel mill where he worked. The stories his parents tell include his boycott of McDonald's as a child (he opposed the plastic foam containers that held Big Macs) and the time as a teenager when he felt that Christmas was too commercial and asked that he receive no gifts. The parents of the man who speaks so poetically about the institution of marriage -- ''Marriage is the act of making public what is already written in two people's hearts,'' he said as he was arraigned -- are divorced. They separated when West was young, and he and his sister grew up shuttling between two homes. When West talks about marriage, it's very personal. As his sister puts it, ''It just makes it really true when he says that marriage is something that is just between two people and not about anyone else.''

After being a member of the steelworkers' union and then the Teamsters, Jason's father, Ron, was a house painter for 15 years, until recently, when after completing his college degree, he became an elementary-school teacher on the South Side of Albany. ''When I was getting my degree, Jason brought over 'A People's History of the United States,' and he said, 'Dad, I think you need to read this if you're going to teach,' and then he took home one of my books, 'Detroit, I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution,''' Ron West said. ''I was a rebel without a clue, but Jason, he is a rebel with a vision.''

After losing his two Assembly races, Jason West wasn't planning on running for office again. But in 2003 there was a change in the political landscape that West astutely tuned in on: the mayor of New Paltz for the previous 16 years, Thomas Nyquist, was running against his deputy mayor, Robert Feldman, and it seemed as if the village establishment's voting base could split. Despite encouragement from local Greens, West and Rebecca Rotzler, who works at the county Board of Education, along with Julia Walsh, a New Paltz student activist, were all still reluctant to run for the three board seats. But then President Bush went to war in Iraq. ''The bombs had started to fall in Baghdad, and that's when we decided that we've got to take our government back,'' West remembered. ''We can't take the presidency, but we can take our village.''

And they did, by 64 votes out of the 869 cast, in part by transporting students to the voting booths and in part because New Paltz has its share of voters who, while not Green Party members per se, are pretty Green. (Even under the more conservative mayor, the village trustees passed a resolution against the Iraq war.) The victory of the Green slate, the only Green Party majority on a local board in the East, was big news in progressive circles. At the inauguration in May, in the packed-to the brim Village Hall, Arm-of-the-Sea performed, vegan cookies were sold and a plan to power the public address system with solar panels was rained out. ''This is a village government run by poetry, music, puppetry and art!'' the M.C. said. Mayor-elect West was introduced as ''an organic gardener, a terrible poker player and one of the most meaningful people in my life.''

The transition did not look as if it would be smooth; former Mayor Nyquist did not meet with his young replacement, and the old guard suggested that village residents would flee. Some village employees were said to be considering quitting. In his inaugural address that rainy day, West tried to assuage fears. ''The nuts and the bolts of the village are run incredibly well by the people who run the administration,'' he said. ''We are the trustees. We hold the community in trust for you.''

But the next week the new board moved swiftly and hired a new village attorney and temporarily put the brakes on a senior housing development for environmental reasons and set about finding ways to use wind and solar power and biodiesel fuel in and around Village Hall. West sought a grant to treat sewage sludge with reeds rather than chemicals; he called for an audit of the town books and prepared to make his first budget. He also moved the board meetings from a small room to a big one and extended the period for public comment. Local Greens were thrilled. ''We're looking to pioneer a true citizens democracy,'' Steve Greenfield, a prominent local Green, said.

Yet West very quickly showed that he is a far more dexterous politician than his critics anticipated. He has turned up at the office every Monday -- the mayoral position is part time -- and found time during his house-painting days to attend various meetings and to sit down with his critics. His diligence has paid off. After months of discussions with senior citizens, environmentalists and developers about the senior project, West has nearly gotten what he hoped for: more housing units and less expensive units, agreements for a site plan that is less damaging to wetlands the housing project encroaches on and a greenway in the village. Critics said that the developers, might flee; the project is still pending, but so far they have not.

Dorothy Jessup is a senior citizen who consulted with West and the other Green trustees. ''I think there were a lot of us who didn't vote for Jason,'' she said, ''and we went to the first meeting because the previous mayor did not lift a finger to help him. I guess we thought, Well, somebody's got to go, and I guess we thought, maybe Jason will listen, and he really did listen.''

Gay marriage has changed Mayor West's life as an activist and may still land him in jail or with a fine. Before meeting in the middle of March with Eliot Spitzer, the state attorney general, West decided to hold off marrying more couples. ''I am big proponent of choosing tactics for a particular situation,'' West said one day down by the sewage-treatment plant. ''You don't want to do a tree-sit for every development.'' He was dressed in his painting clothes and wondering how he could afford much more activism, much less mayoring. His pickup truck is currently held together by bungee cords, and all the attention that gay marriage generated slowed down his house-painting business -- and all the Red Bull and early-morning television appearances physically exhausted him. A few weeks before the weddings, at a board meeting, he suggested that the mayor's job be made full time. It was tabled but, notably, not killed -- many people supported a full-time Mayor West. For a while, he borrowed money to continue to work extra hours at Village Hall, which temporarily put Spencer McLaughlin, the village attorney, at ease; he didn't have to worry about the mayor breaking his neck while discussing a water-well easement. ''I've called him and he was on the ladder and I said, 'Get off of the ladder before you kill yourself,' '' McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin seems to be impressed with how West has handled the senior project, among other things. ''Jason is like a catalyst in a chemical reaction that's spinning off, impacting people all around him. And he's not done yet. He's a work in progress.''

Robert Sullivan is the author of ''Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants.''