Despite the name recognition and multiple endorsements enjoyed by opponents 20 years his senior, 26-year-old Town Councilman John Schoonmaker got his seat on the board with 21 percent of the total votes. According to Marjorie Block, president of the board of directors of the Historical Society, the Frisbee-loving, festival-going Saugerties native may be youngest official to hold the position in town history.
Schoonmaker has never owned property and has only filled out tax forms unassisted for the last three years; now, he will play an integral role in balancing the town budget.
“Part of the reason I think I won was that there was definitely a surge in Democratic voters in this off-term election,” said Schoonmaker. “You saw it occur across the country, and the same played out for the town races in Saugerties. Aside from a few people referencing me as ‘the kid,’ it’s been a very positive reception — people are happy to see the next generation step up and take leadership roles in their communities.”
Schoonmaker grew up in his childhood home off Lauren Tice Road alongside the Esopus Creek, where he claims to have shot nearly 100 pheasants. He played football, lacrosse and wrestled before graduating from Saugerties High in 2010; he attributes sports to much of his discipline and his ability to “get along with a team.” He pursued a biology degree until 2014 at Siena College and is currently nine credits away from graduating. During his stint, he served as the chair for both his college’s Movie Committee and the Special Events Chairperson on the Student Events Board, and was responsible for both corresponding club budgets. He also acted as both the secretary of the Ultimate Frisbee team and the president of his school’s club squash team. Schoonmaker, who initially aimed to be a veterinarian and is now the board’s liaison for the Animal Control Department, maintained a summer job at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary throughout his college career, and became a full-time medical care assistant. Currently, he is a gnotobiologist at Taconic Biosciences, caring for mice in a hazmat suit in a germ-free environment — he said he handled mice that were sent to the International Space Station in June.
Although Schoonmaker graced a handful of board meetings for his government class at Saugerties High, he, like most his age would, found them to be “dry.” His first impassioned involvement in local government is documented: the burgeoning Democrat caught the eye of high-profile Saugerties Democrats during the public comment period of a town board meeting on Jan. 21, 2015 where he opposed the Pilgrim Pipeline emphatically, citing the proposed structures’ path under both Plattekill and Sawyerkill creeks.
“He made a comment that I liked, [and] I met with him after the meeting and filled him in on local politics,” said former District 1 County Legislator Chris Allen, who ultimately nominated Schoonmaker for a Democratic endorsement. “He had expressed some interest in getting involved in politics, and I urged him to apply for a position on the environmental committee.”
To his recollection, Schoonmaker’s true political invigoration took place during in New Hampshire when he accompanied a friend from college acting as a field manager to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ Get Out the Vote initiative in April 2016. He moved to Kingston and became a paid canvasser and later a field manager for Zephyr Teachout’s campaign for governor.
“After Teachout’s loss, there was some time spent wondering what more I could have done — with the elections over, I still wanted to participate somehow,” said Schoonmaker. “That May, I was already considering moving back to Saugerties when Chris Allen called me asking if I still lived in town as the Democratic Committee was looking for one more candidate for town board. At first I told him I wasn’t interested, but a week or so later, circumstances changed and I found myself moving back to Saugerties. With that going on, I reached back out to Chris and started that process. I figured getting involved at the local level was the best way to really help out my community around me. And I think it is important for my generation to start getting involved more. Quite frankly, we are the ones with most at stake still. Many of us still haven’t purchased our first home, starting off in our respective careers, and beginning to think about settling down with a family. What goes on at the local level can have a direct impact on all of these huge decisions in our lives, and it’s important that we make sure our voices are heard during the decision making process. ”
While some of the candidates for the position began campaigning in 2016, Schoonmaker ran a last-minute, inexpensive campaign, relying mostly on Facebook advertisements, a couple honk-and-waves in the village (to which he often took his dog, Spartacus) and the dissemination of a video of his impressive performance at the League of Women Voters’ debate on social media. He refused to cut his long hair, insisting that he “didn’t feel like [he] needed to conform to what an elected official is supposed to look like.” In the wake of his unprecedented win, his mother told reporters that she was proud, “[couldn’t] believe it,” and that he was a “good kid.” He had known his campaign manager, Timothy Scott Jr., from elementary school before meeting him at the Democratic committee.
“I can tell you he’s a great guy,” said Scott. “He’s passionate about the world we live in and always was good at history — I remember in Mrs. Lawless’ eighth-grade history class people would actually argue over who had the top grade for an exam [and] they’d take either him or me. In a way I wasn’t too surprised when he reached out to me and the Democratic Committee about running for the town board — he’ll take all of that experience and use it to better serve our fellow Saugertiesians. He said something to the effect of ‘we don’t have all the answers and we’ll be seeking your input’ after being sworn in, so I think that demonstrates the humble part of him. John will take this opportunity to show that our generation is a friend ready to govern and will work with everyone to keep our community on the right path to prosperity.”
Currently, Schoonmaker is attending a three-day Association of Towns training session for municipal employees. Before he received any training, however, he already helped to appoint Mike MacIsaac to the board seat vacated by Supervisor Fred Costello Jr., appointed members to a slew of committees and navigated his first town board meeting adeptly. Per his campaign promises, he plans to start holding weekly office hours that offset town board meetings at the end of January, giving Saugertiesians extra opportunities to present him with their concerns. He hopes to start a coalition between communities along the Esopus Creek in an attempt to eradicate invasive millifold plants, to find an affordable usage for the Bristol Beach property and to improve the town’s online presence by making information more readily accessible and creating a larger social media presence. Through projects like the proposed solar farm at the transfer station, which would potentially bring in $12,000 per year, he aims to increase the town’s revenue streams and incentivize the establishment of area businesses.
“His election, I think, says a great deal about Saugerties,” said town Democratic Committee Chairman Lanny Walter. “To come out and vote for this young man who doesn’t pretend to be anything but a Democrat and a progressive. He rose to the top from nowhere. If I were a Republican, I’d be concerned that the people of Saugerties embraced him — it bodes well for the future.”