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The Marrying Kind

By wedding same-sex couples, New Paltz mayor Jason West took one small step for gay rights and one giant leap for his political future.

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It’s been only a few minutes since Jason West was charged by the Ulster County district attorney with nineteen counts of performing a marriage without a license, and the 26-year-old mayor of New Paltz is strategizing in his Village Hall office, steps from the town’s college bars and head shops. There’s something willfully mischievous—Tom Cruise–like, though less good-looking and more well-read—about his half-smile. Noises from the next room grow louder, then the door swings open. The wires have the story. Should he draft a statement? Will he keep performing gay marriages? Tom Duane—perhaps the state’s most visible activist on gay issues, until now—is on hold. Can West race to Duane’s gay-marriage forum and be back in time for court?

West dashes into a room of volunteers—SUNY–New Paltz students, armed with cell phones and packs of Marlboro Lights. “Forget the statement,” he says. “I’ll just talk to AP, and they’ll send it out.”

“You’re a popular guy,” says an assistant.

“I’m desperately hoping someone else becomes popular,” West says disingenuously, closing his door. An aide clears the halls while West conjures a media plan.

Moments later, the mayor bounds outside to Peace Park, the muddy patch of grass where he performed the weddings. He shakes hands with a TV interviewer from his hometown of Latham, outside Albany. He’s taken off his glasses.

“Where did you get your social conscience?” asks the reporter, leaning in.

“Well, growing up in Latham,” West says, recounting his blue-collar roots. Dad paints houses. Granddad worked in a mill.

“You’re not in this for the attention?”

“West has worked his way to the center of a social movement. Not necessarily the one he wanted, but, well, he’ll take it.”

“Maybe in some deep, subconscious realm, I am,” he says with that grin. An assistant motions at West to talk slowly as he’s asked to retell his signature childhood story: How, when he learned that Styrofoam lasts forever, 6-year-old Jason organized his first boycott, getting his parents to spurn McDonald’s. It’s his version of chopping down the cherry tree.

West does two more interviews before collapsing on a sofa inside. He glances out the window. “They’re still there?” he says, laughing. “The liberal-media jackals!” His face is flushed. He looks amazed, thrilled.

“I’ve never been in a position before to have to turn away media!”

Before he became the marrying mayor, Jason West was painting houses and performing puppetry for children. Now he has worked his way to the center of a social movement—not necessarily the one he would have chosen, but, well, he’ll take it. “We had to be part of this,” he says. “This is the fastest-growing and most widespread civil-rights movement in a generation.”

Up from Latham, West majored in history at suny–New Paltz, impressing professors and friends in the Green Party with a fluency in arcane environmental notions, like sewage management with artificial reed beds. He graduated and became a gadfly, staging a few local actions, like protesting the new Starbucks on Main Street, before shrewdly splitting the vote in a three-way race for village mayor. Facing two townies, West understood he needed only 300 or so votes to win, and that 2,000 SUNY–New Paltz students live in the village. He won by 64 votes.

West’s gay-rights record is surprisingly spare. His heart is Green; his only arrest was at an anti-IMF protest. But in January, as the gay-marriage issue began to go national, West spoke at the National Conference on Organized Resistance in Washington, D.C., mentioning at a panel titled “Creative Action” that he’d like to marry a gay couple. “When I was elected, I learned I was able to do marriages,” he says, “so it was in the back of my mind.”

His friends Billiam van Roestenberg and Jeffrey McGowan were ready to tie the knot. West thought spring would be the obvious time. But then Massachusetts stole West’s thunder with its gay-marriage amendment, and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom topped them all.

Like a cinematographer losing the light, West was losing the moment.

So he started shopping for a lawyer, in the event that he got arrested for his aggressive reading of state law. The Monday before his first weddings, he asked the town clerk if she would issue licenses. She refused. But on Tuesday, George W. Bush proposed his amendment. Which is why West told a local paper on Wednesday that he was willing to go ahead.

By Thursday, West’s phone started ringing—gay and lesbian couples, other local papers. West’s volunteers scoured the Web for numbers for CNN and other media. Ten minutes after West found his lawyer, the calls went out.

As civil disobedience goes, his move was inspiring. As political careerism, it was off the charts—an act of conscience with a marketing plan. While George Pataki was forced to part ways with Bush on the amendment question, and other mayors were left to play catch-up, West emerged as a man of integrity—a leader. Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf believes that if gay marriage ever polls better (which, if it follows the same trajectory as civil rights, it could), West would become “a profile in courage.” Consultant Norman Adler looks on with professional awe: “He did not become mayor to stay mayor. And most politicians would push their grandmother under a truck to get the name recognition he got.”

Christine Quinn, the lesbian activist City Council member from Chelsea, is flummoxed. She and her allies have been trumped by a rookie. “If you saw on Jeopardy!, ‘It’s the first city in New York to allow gay marriages,’ nobody would buzz in and say, ‘What is New Paltz?’ ” she says. Not everyone feels the love. “I don’t know how calculated it was to make New Paltz a center of TV crews,” says suny–New Paltz political scientist Gerald Benjamin. “My guess is, an opportunity arose and he took advantage of it.” And while sociology professor Barbara Scott is proud of her former pupil, she worries that he picked the wrong issue. “Jason’s breaking the law is nothing compared to Bush’s lying to the American people,” she says. “If I had been advising Jason, I would have said, ‘Don’t let this be a diversion.’ ”

“I disagree with Barbara on this,” West says in Village Hall. “In terms of crass political maneuvering about Bush, I think people don’t realize 1 million gays voted for Bush in 2000.” What Scott may not realize is that an outraged, self-serious militancy went out of style some time ago. West is no professor; he’s a puppeteer—the artistic medium of choice of the Seattle generation. Creative action is his speciality. Marrying gay couples and picketing Starbucks are all part of the show. So, now, are the calls to remove him from office and the D.A.’s threat of jail time.

In the end, of course, it was Eliot Spitzer who turned in the best overall performance. His eye fixed on the 2006 governor’s race, the attorney general gave everyone something to like—refusing to grant an injunction while admitting the weddings were illegal and yet also suggesting the state constitution should change. Spitzer even got the mayor to postpone weddings for a week to consult with him. Jason West is good, but he’s not yet that good.


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