One of the unfortunate aspects of this year’s elections was the younger political leaders on the North Coast who chose to step aside.
Gearhart Mayor Matt Brown, Seaside City Councilor Seth Morrisey and Astoria City Councilor Jessamyn Grace West decided not to seek new terms. While each gave their own reasons, our region has had some difficulty in attracting younger people to public service.
Elected local boards function best when they reflect a cross section of our communities. Younger people, especially those who are trying to build a business or balance work and family, can bring interesting perspectives.
“I think the weight of being a politician during the pandemic — it negatively impacted my health, my relationships, my jobs, my art,” West said. “I know many out there who have been struggling for the past year can say the same because they’ve been working just as hard.”
An equine massage therapist and the executive director of the Astoria Arts and Movement Center, West was appointed to the City Council in January 2019 to replace Bruce Jones after Jones was elected mayor.
West represents Ward 4, which covers Uppertown and Alderbrook. Political newcomers emerged to replace her in the November election. Tom Hilton, the owner of Hanthorn Crab Co., and Lisa Morley, a behavioral workplace safety consultant, are tied at 360 votes ahead of a hand recount this week.
In an interview, West talked about the importance of diverse representation, the challenges of balancing public service with a job and a personal life and the biggest policy issue facing the city.
Q: Our elected local boards have often been dominated by people who are older or who are retired. How do we attract more younger people to public service?
A: That’s a very good question. I think attracting younger people to public service has a lot to do with representation.
I think a lot of times people are more willing to step into roles where they see themselves.
So if that’s not happening, and they constantly feel like that’s a world that they don’t belong in, I think that they get jaded and they just kind of throw their hands up and don’t want to get involved in that particular realm, which politics is definitely one of those.
Q: Editorially, we’ve said that we would prefer our local boards to be more like a jury — a cross section of the community — because they are nonpartisan. What do you see as the value of having people with diverse backgrounds on the City Council?
A: I personally feel like diverse representation is crucial to making balanced decisions.
There can be a lot of identity polarization in politics and communities. So we hear a lot about urban or rural, born here or just moved here, liberal or conservative. I think those dichotomies are harmful because they assume that people fit into a category when most of us fall somewhere in between, so having more in common with each other than not.
But the truth is is that as many of those voices need to be heard as much as possible. Otherwise, as a councilperson you’re directing an outcome that will inevitably leave way too many people behind.
Q: What are some of the challenges of balancing public service with a job and a personal life?
A: I’ll be honest. I completely failed at that. And it is the main reason I did not file for reelection.
I think the weight of being a politician during the pandemic — it negatively impacted my health, my relationships, my jobs, my art. I know many out there who have been struggling for the past year can say the same because they’ve been working just as hard.
Whatever I do, I always want to give 100%. But when you’re giving yourself to five different things, it just becomes too much.
I think in anything one takes on, especially a service role, balance has to remain the priority. Otherwise, certain things in your life will inevitably suffer, and you become less effective in the roles that you should be growing in, if that makes sense.
Q: What’s the most surprising thing you learned about city government that you didn’t know before your appointment?
A: That I love it. After saying all that about suffering ...
Seriously, though. I was raised on Bob Dylan and generally distrustful of politicians, and still am. I never imagined myself in this role. But I care about it, and I do think that there are good people out there doing — or trying to do — good work.
Humane work, environmental work, creative work — and that’s all work that I love to do, that I never thought I’d be given the opportunity to do in city government.
And I’ve also really liked working with the current council.
Q: What’s the biggest policy challenge facing the city?
A: Housing — both affordable and transitional.
That’s not particular to Astoria. I feel like it’s a nationwide, systemic issue largely based in greed that won’t be solved by loosening development code or adding a few units here and there.
I think I feel like one of the only ways to address it is to partner with agencies whose goal is housing and not profit, which is what we see happening with the Merwyn apartments (where workforce housing is being developed at the former Waldorf Hotel by Innovative Housing Inc.).
Q: What advice would you give to your successor?
A: I don’t think I have any. I think whoever is elected is going to do a great job, and they’ll find their way just fine.
I’m obviously still going to stay involved and here as a resource, if they do need advice, but they’re going to do great.