Dare to Vote, Dare to Win?

jason west
Mayor Jason West

How can politically active youth organizers and activists engage the electoral process in a way that neither co-opts their efforts nor leads to expending great amounts of effort with no results? For 26-year-old painter, puppeteer and environmental activist Jason West, the answer was simple: you win. West, running as a Green Party candidate, used a blend of environmental concern and political skill to win the position of mayor of the Hudson Valley town of New Paltz, New York. Rise Up Radio correspondents Stevphen Shukaitis and Nell Geiser interviewed Mayor West about his election victory, the relation of progressive youth movements to electoral politics, and strategies and ideas around tactical political thinking. The following is an excerpt from that interview.

Editor's update: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome has been leading the charge in favor of gay marriage by controversially marrying gay couples, including Rosie O'Donnell and her girlfriend. Following Newsome's lead, Jason West also started marrying gay couples, which resulted in charges being brought against him by the Ulster County District Attorney on March 2nd. He is being charged with violating New York's state constitution by solemnizing gay marriage.

Stevphen Shukaitis: You ran for state assembly twice, and town council once before [becoming mayor]. What motivated you to enter politics?

Mayor West:
I guess I've been politically aware most of my life, but I didn't really get politicized in terms of organizing until 1998, when I helped people here in New Paltz organize a demonstration against Governor Pataki, who was raising tuition and cutting financial aid for state universities. A bunch of us organized a demonstration that turned out 300 people, and we did it in two weeks. Just seeing the fear in the governor's eyes when he came out of the bookstore and saw all those people protesting tuition raises gave us a sense of our own power to make change.

Two of the people who did that were the people who founded the Green Party New Paltz. Running for office basically became an extension of protesting, where you were given a chance, a podium, and platform to bring concerns like universal health care, environmental issues, workers' right issues to a large segment of the public who you may not otherwise be able to talk to. Running for state office as a Green is basically a form of protest at this point -- but you get your views in the newspapers and a chance to articulate a vision of a better world.

jason west
Stevphen and Nell interviewing Jason

Shukaitis: It says that you've put forth ideas such as converting municipal vehicles to soy-based vehicles and adding solar power to Town Hall. You seem to be balancing idealistic visions and pragmatic goals. How do you plan to work toward both?

Well, I don't see myself as an idealist at all. I see myself as a very pragmatic person. In terms of the issues you raised: the soybean fuel is something called biodiesel, which is designed to run on any diesel engine without any modification. You don't need to buy new trucks; you just need to change the fuel you buy. Municipalities in New York state are required to buy their fuel through something called the Office of General Services. Last August, the Office of General Services made biodiesel fuel available to municipalities. So it's just a matter of changing the writing on our purchase order, and we can have biodiesel rather than petrodiesel and support this newer technology that is a cleaner burning fuel. The solar panels, again, are a very pragmatic issue.

It's just a matter of how long-term you're willing to look. The costs of having an oil-based economy, through human lives lost in wars (in Iraq or Afghanistan), the environmental cost of burning fossil fuels, or the cost to our democracy, having a government controlled and run by oil corporations -- that's a cost I'm not willing to pay.

Nell Geiser: What do you say to young people who are cynical about the electoral process, party politics and maybe even the Green Party? After all, the 18 to 25-year-old demographic has generally had the lowest voter turnout rate nationally.

I say they have a right to be cynical. For the most part, there's no reason to be involved in politics, because the rich and the corporations have bought and sold both the Democratic and Republican parties. For the most part, unless you're willing to play that game, to sell out, you're not going to get anywhere in politics. The alternative to that, the alternative that we're trying here, is building our own political party from the ground up.

Talk to your friends and neighbors and get involved that way. That's the only way I could ethically get involved in politics at all. There's no way I could be involved if there were not the Green Party, if there weren't this independent politics movement. I wouldn't be here. That said, I don't have any illusions that all our problems are going to be solved through electoral politics. In all cases, you have to look at what the fundamental problems are and then look for arenas where you can push and change.

For example, I think one of the fundamental problems is, we don't have a multiparty political system. We don't have proportional representation. This is what they have in, for instance, Western Europe, where if your party gets 5 percent of the vote, you get 5 percent of the seats on government. So we can have all sorts of radical parties in politics making change there. I guess my advice would be, don't be ideologically committed to one or another tactic; be committed to the end point, the goal, and find whatever tactic will get you there. In our case, winning elected office is one tactic that's going to get us closer to our goal.

Geiser: There were advantages that you had that someone who's trying something similar to you, running for city council, for instance -- say, a young woman of color running for city council in [a larger city like] New York City -- may not have in trying to break through such a huge multilayered political machine, versus the small political machine of New Paltz.

Absolutely. I don't think you're going to see many, or any, independents elected in [large cities] in the near future. What I would like to see is more of these [smaller] communities get organized and get independent politicians involved to build a reputation for public policy so the folks down in the cities who want to run, regardless of your race or gender, can run on the reputation of what we've done. So we can show people that Green Party people elected to office do improve our lives.

Geiser: How do you see yourself allying with young activists in [urban areas] and trying to build up progressive power even as the same possibilities for electoral action may not be available there?

Everyone knows politicians are corrupt. But it's one thing to know it in general terms and another to have someone on the podium laying out specifically how this person is corrupt and how they're ruining our neighborhoods and how they're weakening our unions and tenant associations, how they're attacking regular people. And I think it's very important to provide people an option, because some people do vote. Not everybody does, but for those who do, give them an option that is not just corruption and kowtowing to the rich and powerful.

Shukaitis: Do you have any final thoughts for our audience?

Well, I have one suggestion in the discussion about thinking tactically and strategically. One of the most brilliant essays that has come out in recent years is written by Ward Churchill. It's called "Pacifism as Pathology" (in a book by the same name). He talks about the nature of the American left [as] settling for symbolic action, and he calls for [us] to think instead that we have more of an obligation to win. Secondly, I think it's a lot harder to sell out than people assume. I think there's an irrational fear of selling out [when you run for office]. Those are just two questions that I'm wrestling with, so I'd like to hear back from other people in the movement, and hopefully we can get a conversation started.

For more information, listen to Rise Up Radio, youth-produced, social justice radio airing Fridays, 11:00-11:55 a.m. on WBAI 99.5 in New York City, www.riseupradio.org. To contact Mayor Jason West, e-mail mayor@villageofnewpaltz.org.

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