As artist and writer Duncan Hannah remarked traveling to Milford, Pa. for a book festival, “Looks like Trump country.”
And that makes the election of gay, lefty and HIV-positive Sean Strub as Mayor surprising.
The central question is how does a borough of about 1,000 residents put manners on political campaigns, consultants and pollsters when they cast their ballots?
That same question intrigued Dutch journalist Max Westerman, a college chum of Strub’s since they both attended Columbia University in the late 1970s. He’s released “My Friend, the Mayor; Small-town Democracy in the Age of Trump”, a documentary film he has made about Strub, a liberal Democratic activist and long-term AIDS survivor’s campaign for mayor of the conservative small Pennsylvania town that voted for Donald Trump.
“When Sean Strub, one of my most liberal and politically active friends, told me he was running for Mayor in a small town that voted for Donald Trump, I didn’t think he had a chance,” Westerman said.
When he visited Strub during the campaign, Westerman discovered “not only that he had a chance, but I saw the adage ‘all politics is local’ in action. Ultimately, Sean gained support because his constituents saw him as a neighbor, more so than as a partisan label.”
In contrast to Europeans, Westerman said, “It would typically not make sense to vote for such ideologically opposite candidates for national versus local office. But for many Americans, it is desirable, as they see it as bringing a balance to the political system.”
As a TV correspondent, Westerman used to work with a camera crew. This documentary is his first stab at doing the filming himself. “One advantage was the flexibility this gave me to film intimate moments whenever they occurred, such as when I found Sean in bed one morning checking up on the latest campaign news, and another one when Sean and Xavier had an honest discussion at dinner about how the job of mayor and its workload might impact their relationship.”
What stood out to Westerman who had mostly covered national politics was the pure and inspiring quality of local democracy. “There are no big lobbies involved, campaigns are fought without huge war chests, and both candidates seemed genuinely concerned with the common good.”
Strub says of his mayoral campaign, “We can make progress on LGBT issues everywhere, no matter how conservative, Republican, rural or Trump-supporting the area might be. We can't write off anyone or anywhere.”
So how did a gay, lefty with mayor with HIV react upon being elected mayor?
Strub says right after the election “a business owner who had opposed me had a problem. This guy had been pretty nasty and personal in some of the comments he made locally. But he needed my help. I could tell he was almost embarrassed coming to me, maybe it was a sign of how desperate he was.”
“It was ultimately a minor issue,” Strub explains, “but it was important to him and it fell clearly within the realm of my office and I gladly stepped in with what he needed. He was both grateful and a little incredulous. Later he thanked me, very sincerely, and kind of mumbled something about he wasn't sure he would have done the same if. the situation was reversed.”
Strub’s interaction with a business owner who opposed him at the polls “was satisfying, not so much because he changed his opinion about me, but because I genuinely want to treat every constituent the same and I want them to know that.”
Just recently, Strub notes, “I helped a Trump campaign staffer with something they needed from the borough concerning a rally. I take pride in separating my personal feelings from my responsibility as mayor.”
My Friend, the Mayor is an inspiring story of how grassroots democracy can be vibrant, healthy and successful at a local level, even while the two-party political system at a national level flounders in extreme partisan deadlock. The film is available on Amazon Prime Video June 27.