Debuting June 27 on Amazon Prime Video, the documentary My Friend, the Mayor: Small-Town Democracy in the Age of Trump, chronicles AIDS activist Sean Strub’s two-month campaign for mayor in the conservative town of Milford, Pennsylvania. Funny and informative, this film is for anyone who’s interested in local politics, community organizing, and small-town living. To learn more about this film, correspondent Terri Wilder spoke with the lead subject of the documentary, Sean Strub, and the director Max Westerman.
Milford, Pennsylvania, mayor Sean Strub has a long history as an LGBT and HIV community activist. Appointed mayor in 2016 to complete an unexpired term, he was subsequently elected to a four-year term in 2017. Strub also serves as the executive director of the Sero Project, a U.S.-based network of people living with HIV combating the criminalization of health conditions and supporting the creation and strengthening of networks of people living with HIV. He was the first openly HIV-positive person to run for federal office in the United States, in 1990, produced the Obie Award–winning Off Broadway play, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, and founded POZ Magazine in 1994, where he served as executive editor and publisher for 10 years. His memoir, Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival was published by Scribner in 2014. He co-authored Rating America’s Corporate Conscience and Cracking the Corporate Closet, and he often collaborates with his partner Xavier Morales and his sister, Megan Strub.
He owns and operates the Hotel Fauchère Relais & Chateau, a renowned historic boutique hotel and culinary destination in Milford.
Max Westerman is a Dutch journalist who has spent much of his professional life in the United States. From 1991 to 2006, he was the U.S. correspondent of RTL Nederland, Dutch television, and covered all the major stories for that period, including presidential elections, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Oklahoma City bombing, the O.J. Simpson case, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, and 9/11. He has produced two television series based on books he’s written, as well as documentaries about America’s prison industry, the O.J. Simpson case, the 2000 elections, and the death penalty.
Terri Wilder: So, thanks to both of you for joining me today. Max, let’s start with you. Can you tell me when you first met Sean?
Max Westerman: I met Sean in the late 1970s. We were both 20 years old. Now we’re both 62. We met through a mutual friend, and we hit it off. And I think one of the reasons we hit it off was that we had a shared interest in politics. I wanted to be a journalist. I was studying political science at the time. And I always saw in Sean a political activist, but perhaps also a politician, someone in a governing position. And finally, it’s become that way after waiting for 40 years, because what came in between, of course, was that he was diagnosed with HIV in the early 1980s. And I was there as well. I had just done a story for a Dutch magazine about this mysterious new disease that mostly hit gay people, and then Sean woke up one day with the first symptoms of what was then called ARC (AIDS-related complex). And I took him to that doctor I had interviewed, and the doctor said, “Well, Sean, under the best of circumstances, you may have only a few years to live.” Unfortunately, the doctor himself died a few years later of HIV. And Sean is alive and kicking 40 years later, finally went into politics, and I’m very happy to see that.
TW: So what was it about this story of running for mayor that made you want to make a film about it, versus another method of storytelling?
MW: Well, one very practical reason I had, I was a television correspondent for a long time for Dutch TV and I always worked with a camera crew. And I was always sort of interested in what that cameraman was doing. I wanted to learn it myself. And finally, a few years ago, I took a course at Columbia University in New York (same school that I studied journalism at for my master’s 40 years ago), in how to operate small cameras, even your iPhone. And then Sean told me he was going to run for mayor. I thought, “Hey, that’s a nice subject for me to try my new skills out on.” So when I set out filming his campaign, I wasn’t even convinced that was going to be a documentary. Sean was allowing me to tag along with him to try to practice my new skills. But then it turned out to be a really good story about local politics—which, you know, I had covered American politics for many, many years. But as a foreign correspondent, that mostly means you cover Washington politics, national politics, presidential politics. I had never really seen how fascinating local politics are in the United States and how much local citizens get into it.
TW: Sean, the town of Milford where you live is culturally conservative and overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in the last presidential election. And you’re a gay man, you’re living with AIDS, and you’re very liberal. Why did you want to run for mayor? I mean, first of all, there’s no salary for the position, and you’re a very busy person running a business and engaging in activism.
Sean Strub: So the county went overwhelmingly for Trump. His margin in Milford, which is the county seat, was a little bit less, apparently. And, through a series of occurrences that involve very local issues, we elected a new majority to the council, to our Borough Council. And they were really, really good. I was very involved in their campaign, I was appreciative that they were willing to run for a position that takes a lot of time. There’s no compensation. You get a lot of grief. A lot of people were angry with the council. So when the mayor stepped down, and they asked me to complete his term, I was glad to do that to support them. I then found, first, I enjoyed it. Second, I felt like I was being effective. I was helping to shape something even beyond our immediate community in our county and region.
And when my term was coming up near the end of 2017, no one thought I would run for it, because just the assumption was I could certainly never get elected to it. You know, I was only mayor because this council appointed me to complete the term. And then I realized the assumption was that I could never get elected. I know the people of Milford, and I got to know them even better as mayor, and I felt like there were a lot of people sharing my vision for the community. So then I decided to run for it.
TW: One of the storylines in the documentary was about your campaign chairman, Bill Kiger. He voted for Trump and believes that (and I’ll quote from the documentary), “Trump is a very important figure in our history.” And, you know, as I was watching the film, I almost spit out my water as he said that. How in the world did he become your campaign chairman, just knowing that you kind of described yourself as a lefty?
SS: Well first of all, Bill Kiger, I first became aware of because I saw this older guy always picking up litter and sweeping the curbs. And he was a constant volunteer in the community, which I admired and appreciated. And we then became friends, being involved in various community endeavors. And for a long time, we never talked about national politics. I assumed he was a Republican, because everybody around here is a Republican, but we never had much of a conversation about it. And over time we saw each other as individuals, as neighbors and as people who shared a concern and vision for Milford to a large extent, rather than partisan labels. And, you know, when I decided to run, I knew I would not get elected without Republican votes.
It is a partisan race, although our local governance in the borough is not partisan, meaning you get elected as a Republican or a Democrat, but in terms of the function of the council in the borough, I have never once felt like partisanship entered into the decision-making for any of the council members since I’ve been serving, even the Republican ones. And I didn’t know he had voted for Trump at that point. But I can’t explain why I see him as such a wonderful outstanding citizen and a great community volunteer, and a very rational, thoughtful, dedicated resident locally that then voted that way at a federal level. I don’t try to explain it. And there are many other people I know in my life, in my family, amongst my supporters, who also voted for Donald Trump, and I am relieved when I hear one of them express regret or that they’re not going to do it again. But I don’t understand why they did it in the first place.
TW: Max, I think I might be as confused as probably the rest of us are about how people can vote for Donald Trump for president but then vote for a lefty candidate for mayor in a local election. I have never voted for the opposite party in an election. So I’m wondering, what are your thoughts about this? Is this a U.S. phenomenon, or does it happen in other parts of the world?
MW: Well, no, I was surprised by that, to see staunch Trump republicans involved in Sean’s campaign and at the highest level. I don’t think that would so easily happen here in Holland, we have a rather different political system. We have 16 political parties. So it would be very unusual for us to vote for a right-wing party in national elections and then go for a liberal party in a local election, because you have so many different shades to choose from. You have only two shades—you have Republican and Democrat. But I think local politics in the U.S. are much more important to them. In most places in Europe, I mean, that is just because of the whole way American democracy has been set up is a very decentralized system, and I find that very inspiring, to see [people] really get to shape their own environment and often really getting involved in things. You see that in the movie—you see many volunteers putting in many of their spare hours into working for the candidates they believe in.
SS: I think there’s another thing that may be a factor here. And that’s the role of money in American politics, which is so overwhelmingly defining at the federal level, and then increasingly at the state level. It isn’t at the local level. I don’t remember how much we spent—it wasn’t very much money. But it wasn’t the money we spent that made the difference in the campaign. You know, there’s not a Republican way or a Democratic way to pick up the garbage or to plow the snow. And at a local level, when you are so close to the government services that are being provided with your tax dollars, it’s more about, is this person getting the job done.
I don’t think we will ever get past this partisan divide and this intense polarization of the country because of new federal leadership. Obviously, I’m eager to have new federal leadership, but that’s not going to fix things. But we’ll fix things at a neighbor to neighbor grassroots level, changing how we relate to others in our communities.
MW: I think at the national level, people tend to vote much more along ideological lines. Then at the local level, where they’re feeling the impact of their vote right away, they’re invested in the way their town is run. So they have to be much more practical about their vote at the local level. So even if it means that you’re a right-wing Trump voter and perhaps even a little bit of a homophobe, if the lefty gay guy can do the job better, it’s in your interest to vote for him.
TW: Sean, you moved to Milford about 20 years ago, and I’m just wondering if you think 20 years ago, you would have even had a chance to win this election.
SS: No, No. I think the country and the whole climate around gay people and people with HIV has changed. But I think that one of the main reasons I won is because I have been so engaged in this community in so many different ways. Politically, financially, socially. And people have gotten to know me, and they know me. What I’ve done, and what I represent in the community is more important than what I might believe about reproductive rights or about presidential candidates or something like that. And there’s another really important factor here as well, which is that I came into this community, and I started purchasing property and restoring buildings. And because I was engaged in those things, I had a lot of privilege as a property owner, as somebody who came in and organized and got things done. And so that gave me a standing that someone else might not easily achieve.
TW: Sean, you’re very involved in the HIV community. And I’m curious about what is it like to have HIV in Milford. What kind of services are available for people with HIV, and what do you feel like your role is as the mayor, regarding HIV in your community?
SS: This is a very small town. We barely have the money for the basic services we provide. We don’t have a public health function other than sort of a bully pulpit in a leadership role. Separate from that, there are not great services for people with HIV locally. We don’t have a hospital in this county. We don’t have an urgent care facility. We don’t even have ambulance services all the time. So it’s a real-world kind of a health care desert, if you will.
Now, we’re close enough to New York and the Orange Regional Medical Center in Middletown and Newton Memorial Hospital in Newton, New Jersey. So most people are getting their care elsewhere. But the isolation locally is I think one of the big challenges as I began to meet people with HIV locally, and some of them were gay men who had weekend homes or had moved here from New York. But others (and I’m thinking of two women in particular), had never really been around anybody else with HIV, let alone an activist. One of them was a young person who—one day I got a Facebook message from her. And she said she had been reading POZ for years, and she just turned like 18 or 19 years old. And she lived several blocks from me, literally, like five blocks away from where I lived in this little tiny town. And she said she had been working for a nurse, she had been stalking me online, [when she discovered] the guy who started POZ was right here in her town. And that, I think, helped lead her into a path where she has become a very effective advocate. Luckily, we started a support group for people with HIV, meeting once a month, and not a big group—five, six, seven, eight people. And then she ran that for several years until recently, because she’s moved.
Another woman does not know anyone else with HIV besides me. You know, I said, “Did you ever meet anybody else with HIV?” And she said, well, at her doctor’s office, she talked one time in the waiting room with somebody else who had HIV. And, you know, for someone like me, who has been so engaged and so out there and so public and involved with people with HIV and activism and all this, it was a reminder of how isolating a diagnosis can be. We had one person who was in a countywide office here, and one of his standard campaign lines was stopping these people from New York coming up here and bringing their diseases with them. That ironically got revived in a broader sense around COVID-19, where lots of people were upset with New Yorkers coming up to their weekend homes here and bringing COVID-19 with them.
But of course, this [elected official] was 15 or 20 years ago, and he wasn’t talking about COVID. He was talking about me. And that particular politician got elected, he served several terms, and he would never shake my hand. And even to the point where someone told me they thought I was being a little paranoid. And I said, “Watch this.” We’re having an event. And I walked over to the little cluster of people this guy was talking with, and I started to reach my hand out toward them. And that particular person turned his head and walked away, leaving me with the other two. So, you know, you see things like that, and you’re reminded that for most of America, that’s closer to what people with HIV live like than those of us who live in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco.
TW: That’s pretty amazing that that still happens. Is that about being educated about transmission, or is it homophobia or just a combination of AIDS-phobia and homophobia? And I’m really sorry that that happened to you.
SS: You know, I would say there’s another side of that, too—people who (usually awkwardly) come out to me about having a sibling, a cousin, either who’s queer or has HIV, or their own experiences with the epidemic. One of my favorites was that I had a plumber who was doing work for me, was a very gruff guy, and he’s died since then. But he’s a big gruff plumber, right wing, didn’t really talk politics, but we never bonded, but I kind of thought he liked me. I think he enjoyed doing work for me, and we talked about stuff. And one time we got into a little broader conversation, and I mentioned something about some activism or something I was involved in, just kind of casually, and he started around and he finally got up and he [starts stuttering], “Well, you know, I got, I got, I got, two, two sisters. They’re, they’re, like you.” I have a feeling that was maybe one of the first times he ever told anybody that he had two sisters who were lesbians. So those are, those were kind of cool moments as well.
And early on, maybe in ’99, I agreed to host a fundraiser. Ed Rendell was running for governor, and Equality Pennsylvania was quite vibrant at the time, and so we did a fundraiser up here for Equality Pennsylvania. Well, there’s never been a gay fundraiser within 50 miles of Milford, Pennsylvania, and I just went out to some of the prominent people in the community. You know, gay, straight, or closeted, and asked them to be the co-sponsors of it and was really pleased with who was willing to do that. And that helped kind of break some ground.
And then a woman who I met locally came to me, and she said that she wanted to start a gay and lesbian community center. And this a rural county, give or take 1,000 people at the time. I think Pennsylvania only had four cities that had gay community centers—Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and maybe Erie or Allentown, I think. And I was supportive of her, but I was skeptical. So I don’t want to claim any credit for starting this. I was supportive and helped raise a little bit of money, but she put this effort into it. And we now have, they call it the TriVersity Center now. It has an office. It has extensive programming. For young people, they do an annual prom at the Best Western Inn and invite the kids from high schools in the tri-state area. We’re right near New York, New Jersey, and in Pennsylvania, and it’s about half young queer kids and allies from the schools, and then about half are supportive adults in the area. So it’s become a vibrant and really important part of our local community in a town that wouldn’t have been on anybody’s list of likely places to start an LGBT community center.
TW: Well, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching the film, and it really makes you think about a lot of different things and makes me wonder what’s next for you. Do you have any other projects that are coming up?
MW: Well, I’m in the Netherlands right now. And as a former U.S. correspondent, I’ll be commenting a lot for Dutch television on the presidential race. Like in the United States, we have a lot of television talk shows. And so in the next few months, I’ll be on a lot of those shows to talk about American politics. After that, I hope to sort of refocus on other interests of mine. I live part of the time in the United States. I lived there for almost 30 years. I’m now sort of dividing up my time between Amsterdam and Rio de Janeiro.
Journalistically, I would like to get my focus back onto Brazil and do a few more projects about that country. I think it deserves a lot more attention. I mean, it is the second most important country of the Western Hemisphere. After the United States, the second largest economy—but it is a lot harder to get the attention of editors for stories about Brazil. I mean, it’s very easy to sell projects about the United States. We are always fascinated with everything that comes out of the USA. It is very difficult to get attention for other countries, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying.
TW: And then Sean, what’s next for you?
SS: There are two other things I need to say about the community in my race. One of the things is I became more involved in politics and community affairs in Pike County. You know, people would sometimes say, “Oh, Sean Strub, he’s trying to get gay people to move to Milford,” or “He’s trying to get New Yorkers to move to Milford,” or “He’s trying to get artists to move to Milford.” There is some xenophobia, right? And my response to that is I want people to come here who want to be engaged in a community life, people who volunteer and get involved in things. And so much of what I have done locally has been about bringing new people into participation. And that has resulted in a demand for local government that is more transparent, more accountable, more responsive. And that’s very different for this community where basically, for many, many years [this town] had been run by a small group of people.
And the other part of that is that we have political activism. That would have been unheard of a few years ago. We had, on Saturday, our third Black Lives Matter march. The first, we had 275 people at our courthouse. The second one was held at the Presbyterian Church. The third one was a march through town last Saturday. We have had a series of vigils after episodes of police violence or the Pulse shooting in Orlando. And there’s a core group of people now who are willing to stand up and kind of found each other. And some of this also helped with the Hillary campaign in 2016, that it brought a lot of people who lived here, but maybe they didn’t even feel the right or they didn’t feel the opportunity to be involved locally. And now we have gotten them involved in different ways. And that bleeds out, and it’s not just the politics and the social change work, but it goes into the library and the Historical Society and the Preservation Trust, the domestic violence shelter, and all the other nonprofit agencies in the community.
One of the things in these small towns that people really respect is volunteers, and they respect participation. We rely on volunteers for our fire department. We don’t have any paid firefighters, so if there is a fire, it is these neighbors who I rely on to come and put that fire out. And everyone in this community knows that. So we have volunteers and so many different things that we’ve really prioritized that encourage and respect people who get engaged. And I think that’s working.