Searching for a progressive soul in Upstate New York
by Meagan Murray
Oh, Upstate New York. The image of dim-witted, Carhartt-sporting dairy farmers, too stupefied by their own reflections in the frozen tundra of the land laid out before them to know which way is up comes to mind.
At least, this is the projected stereotype of most people downstate. I was, until recently, one of the many who regarded such “demographically-challenged” lost souls inhabiting the upper regions of New York State (including myself) as severely lagging behind in the evolutionary process. Then I had a somewhat stress-induced epiphany, but an epiphany no less—and voilá, the focal point of this article was born.
First off, I will give my own geography lesson. Many a person is confused as to what qualifies as “Upstate territory.” Well, contrary to what most Manhattanites and other southern New Yorkers believe, upstate is, in my eyes, not just any stretch of land north of Albany and the Hudson.
“Upstate” is the outlying areas north and northwest, inclusive of, the Adirondack Mountains: Clinton County, Franklin County, Essex County, and St. Lawrence County. Approximately 282,000 people inhabit Upstate New York—about 82,000 being from Clinton County, my motherland.
When it came to writing this all down in a fashion that would please and maybe acknowledge the reader, I couldn’t even begin to describe my moral struggle over what to write about Upstate New York. But then I recalled that my hometown in Clinton County, the city of Plattsburgh, is home to the first openly gay, elected official in New York State history—Mayor Daniel L. Stewart, one of only six openly gay Republicans in the nation.
I was born and raised in the city of Plattsburgh, the industrial epicenter of Clinton County—and, many say, Upstate New York. Located just down the road from the Canadian border and only a hop, swim, and a jump away from Burlington, Vermont via Lake Champlain, I live in what has been proudly branded “The North Country.”
After shipping off to Ithaca College in Fall 2004, I returned home in October to my primarily conservative family brimming with my newfound knowledge. To most of them, I was nothing more than a “born-again liberal,” brain-washed with progressive fallacies by outraged, hippie professors.
On one occasion, before returning back to Ithaca at the close of October break, I brought my new boyfriend, Jacob, down to visit my grandparents on my father’s side of the family. As my young companion and I wrapped up the conversation, my grandpa shot me his “Don’t-think-you’re-getting-off-the-hook-this-easy” look. I knew what was coming—politics and badgering. I didn’t have the stamina.
After I interrupted his prodding examination into my political views, he gave me his playful, yet somewhat juvenile, devilish grin that I’ve grown to recognize with increasing anxiety throughout the years.
“Oh God, don’t tell me you’re one of those liberal bitches now,” he scoffed. Horrified, I looked over at Jacob to see if he had taken flight from the situation and my seemingly insane family, but he had remained dutifully at my side, wearing a look of mock horror and shock that ran deeper and more expressive than my own.
At that time, I became thoroughly convinced that the anti-Christ had hunkered down somewhere within my demographics and was in cohorts with my family to advance his stages for the Apocalypse. It was easy to say I was somewhat hostile toward my region, and I saw little hope for change. But would it really be fair of me to cast such a negative opinion on the entire region just because of harmless, endless, family quarrels? What good would I be doing in hopes of helping to shed this incessant stereotype of Upstaters?
I needed a positive viewpoint here; I needed to utilize my resources in the North Country. I needed to talk to Mayor Stewart. Who better to express a more insightful view on the Upstate region than an openly gay, Republican mayor?
Upon my first encounter with him, I found Stewart to be a man of sturdy yet amiable character. Towering over 6 feet in height, his booming voice echoes off the walls of his City Hall office. His youthful, charismatic smile showed that he was ready and equipped for my prodding, probably repetitious questions. We got down to business.
Serving his third term as the mayor of Plattsburgh since first being elected in 2000, he has since brought all components of politics, economics, arts and education to the table and has learned to work with the community for growth, progress, and industrial innovation.
“You can’t survive on just politics,” he said with a grin. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, it’s safe to say Stewart has a colorful past filled with renewed opportunity, and he seemed to find it in the North Country. At age 17, after graduating from Cumberland High School in Cumberland, Rhode Island, Stewart went on to join the U.S. Air Force.
“When I was in the military, I was actively using. I left the military in 1988 and in December of ’88, I got clean and sober. Part of my recovery was to stay in Plattsburgh and not go back [to Rhode Island]…I still have friends who are standing on the same corner selling drugs.”
“In August 1988, I became homeless in Plattsburgh. I went to the food shelf and slept under the Bridge Street Bridge for two nights because I had nowhere else to go,” he said. “Twelve years later, I was mayor. God bless America.”
In the community, Mayor Stewart stands as a moderate Republican. He is a member of the “Log Cabin Republicans,” a political organization that began in 1978 and consists of members of the Republican Party who fully support equal distribution of lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights in the United States.
So how does a man like this survive in Plattsburgh? More importantly, how is he a respected leader of the community? Stewart is a member of the Republican Party, a personal aspect enticing enough to compel me to ask, “What makes you a Republican?” Luckily, he found this humorous.
“Well, I’m pro-choice, I believe that gay-marriage rights should be distributed evenly in America. With the national Republican Party, I have little in common,” Stewart said. “I have always found the gay issue to be a ‘perceived handicap’ for me. When you really add it up, it’s how you take the perceived handicap and turn it into a productive part of what you do.”
So how exactly does the North Country react to this brand of politics? My personal opinion on politics at any level—local, state, and national—had always been that people will follow the lead of their elected official for their due term and when that leader is replaced, people will simply fall into whatever line is directed by the successor. That was, until this summer.
Most people have probably heard of the “Reverend” Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. If not, I’m sorry I’m the one to tell you.
Phelps has paraded his caravan of family members and followers to over 20,000 protest sites to represent “God’s hatred” and attest to “His holy attributes” to the sinners of the world. They have protested at funerals for AIDS/HIV victims, held up signs at the funeral for Matthew Shepard that read “No Fags in Heaven,” and are now beginning to protest the gravesites and funerals for soldiers killed in service in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that events such as 9/11 are positive and symbolic of God’s hatred for the state of America.
Then Phelps found our mayor. Last year, Phelps sent a self-addressed letter to our “Fag Mayor” claiming the right to protest at our annual Mayor’s Cup Festival, held last year from July 1-9.
Plattsburgh suddenly came to arms, ready to defend our mayor. Plattsburgh for Peace, an organization that is still functioning today, was created to educate and unify the city about Phelps and his message.
True to his word, Phelps pulled up shop several days into the festival. I was fired up myself, and I went down with a friend to the Plattsburgh for Peace rally. Never in my 20 years of living in Plattsburgh have I seen a more bizarre assortment of people brought together for one unified cause. The biggest hick was standing next to the biggest lesbian, shouting as one in defense of our mayor and