NEW PALTZ, N.Y. - Jason West is a 26-year-old house painter, puppeteer and activist. And on June 1, he became mayor of the Village of New Paltz.
In elections that shocked some locals, West and two running mates pulled off a rarity for Green Party candidates by winning majority control of the village. As the new mayor plans to improve the sewers and run village vehicles on soy-based fuel, some residents of this Hudson Valley college town are apprehensive.
New Paltz is used to young people with progressive ideals, but not in village hall.
Mayor-elect of the Village of New Paltz, N.Y., Jason West poses on Monday May 19, 2003, in New Paltz. West is a 26-year-old house painter, puppeteer and activist. On June 1, West and two running mates pulled off a rarity for Green Party candidates and won majority control of the village. (AP Photo/Keith Ferris)
"I'm looking forward to it with trepidation, but with interest," said longtime resident Arnold Weiner. "Does he know how to play the system?"
New Paltz is a postcard-perfect village of about 6,000 dominated by the State University of New York at New Paltz. Students are honeycombed throughout the village in rented houses, and keep Main Street's bars and funky clothes shops bustling.
Now some people say students tipped the election this month that put West and two running mates in power June 1. Each candidate has ties to the school. West and trustee Rebecca Rotzler, 41, are graduates. The other trustee, 23-year-old Julia Walsh, is a New Paltz student. West figures his team's entire campaign cost about $2,500.
Some people believe West won the part-time post because 16-year incumbent Thomas Nyquist and longtime trustee Robert Feldman split the voting bloc of more established residents. While Nyquist and Feldman claim students deluged the polls, West's team claims their support came from the school and the village.
Nyquist has given the cold shoulder to his successor, who is 45 years his junior. Village residents and business owners interviewed on the street seemed more willing to give the new team a chance. But many still worry about West's youth and whether he will cater only to college students.
"Is he a students' mayor or is he the village mayor of New Paltz?" asked Phyllis Johnson.
West seems unfazed. Grabbing a bagel after work on a recent day, the jeans-wearing mayor said the only way to prove himself will be to fix the sewers and fill the potholes. Before taking office, he was already boning up on municipal codes and union contracts.
"This is not about firing everybody, hiring my friends and having keg parties in village hall," West said.
He talks in detail about purifying sewer water with artificial wetlands and the benefits of biodiesel fuel.
An environmentalist from an early age - he lobbied his family against eating food from plastic foam containers at age 6 - West became involved with the Green Party while majoring in history and fine arts at New Paltz.
He stayed in the village after graduation, running a house painting business, working with a mask-and-puppet performance group called Arm-of-the-Sea Theater, and running unsuccessfully for the state Assembly in 2000 and 2002. He also ran for New Paltz town council in 2001.
As for West's running mates, Rotzler said she has been involved in the community for more than a decade. Walsh, a political science and international relations major, said she is an honor student who has done extracurricular work at the United Nations for the Young General Assembly.
West said he expected the election victory to merit "a little blurb on page four of the local paper." Instead, it created a stir locally and has become a bragging point for the Green Party.
The national party shies away from referring to New Paltz as Green-controlled because Walsh is not a registered Green. However, she ran with West and Rotzler on the Green line as well as the local "Innovation" line. The Green Party lists Sebastopol, Calif. as the only other municipality with a Green majority.
The success in New Paltz is a bright spot for a state party that failed to collect enough votes in November's gubernatorial race to keep its automatic place on the statewide ballot. The party maintains its spot pending an appeal.
West downplays the national connection, saying the party's help was limited to a half-dozen volunteers. But state party chairman Mark Dunlea said Greens were motivated by the victories in New Paltz.
"It inspires people," he said, "just the shot of adrenaline that went through the party after their election."
Copyright 2003 The Associated Press