Candidate profile: Wilsonville mayoral candidate Ben West defies labels
Wilsonville City Councilor Ben West is a polarizing force in Wilsonville politics.
While his supporters view him as an ideological maverick who is in touch with the community's concerns, he's also been criticized by Mayor Tim Knapp for an outburst during a 2019 council meeting and was denied a spot on the Willamette Falls Locks Commission by Gov. Kate Brown.
A group of Wilsonville residents also recently highlighted what they felt were offensive comments he's made on social media, including tweets criticizing multiculturalism.
Now West, who has at times served as the lone dissenting voice on an otherwise unified council, is vying for the most prominent political position in the city: mayor of Wilsonville. He is running against former City Councilor Julie Fitzgerald.
"I'm not doing everything right if every politician likes me," West said.
Prior to being voted onto the council in 2018, West started the nonprofit Oregon Foster Families First, ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and made a late mayoral bid in 2016. He also is a mortgage banker turned nurse at Oregon Health & Science University. In 2014, West was a plaintiff in a case that led the state Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage.
"I think some of his background and experience makes a big difference. He has a background in housing. We're in a weird health crisis right now, so his background as a nurse is pretty critical," said former Wilsonville Planning Commissioner Eric Postma. "Beyond that, he brings some good, new ideas. I think some people in our community are longing for a new direction and I think that's what he's aiming for."
West says his extensive work in Salem advocating for foster care legislation gives him a unique rolodex of contacts who he would rely on to advance Wilsonville's interests. He also references his relationship with state Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville, who he says is like a sister to him despite their political differences.
West bristles against groupthink and said his penchant for thinking differently and being proactive has borne fruit in Wilsonville already. For instance, he pushed the City Council to provide relief to small businesses in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic closures as early as March 20.
West said fellow councilors were hesitant and he was dismayed when COVID-19 relief was not initially on the April 6 agenda. The city then added it to the agenda and passed the plan April 20.
"I know myself and Kevin (Ferrasci O'Malley) from the chamber had reached out to some of the elected officials and city staff to an extent as well in order to discuss how there might be some relief to business," said Postma, who is on the chamber board of directors. "Ben was pretty far and away the most receptive to that and, from my perspective, championed it as a councilor."
West also started a relief fund for victims of the 2019 Villebois fire and a regular YouTube series to highlight businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the other hand, proponents of Fitzgerald have mentioned West's council attendance record as a point of criticism.
West has the most absences of anyone on the council since his term started in 2019 and did not attend a single budget committee meeting in 2019 or 2020. West said he missed the first slate of meetings because he was still having to work a graveyard shift at the time and he missed the 2020 meetings because of his role as a nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, West missed four of 40 regular council meetings from January 2019 to August 2020.
"I don't think I have an attendance problem on the council," he said. "I don't think there's evidence of that. I think I commonly attend."
West said he has time for the role of mayor and, if elected, he would spread some of the responsibilities that Knapp takes on himself, such as attending regional political meetings, to fellow councilors and city staff.
"I think there will be balance where there is a lack of balance currently," West said.
One of the most notable moments of West's council tenure was his tirade during a council meeting in 2019 after he felt the council didn't more strongly consider Postma or John Budiao for a vacant council seat that went to Joann Linville. West stands by his stance that Postma and Budiao weren't given a fair shake.
"I found my responsibility to be a voice of opposition to not only challenge the current council but to make it clear the way we could have as a council done much better than how it ended up transpiring," he said.
However, while West disagrees with his fellow councilors on a few things, such as the city's relationship with the Aurora Airport, he pointed out that they pass the vast majority of resolutions unanimously and that he supported policies that other conservatives might not have, such as the city's Equitable Housing Strategic Plan and efforts to bring more renewable energy to Wilsonville. He also said he recently spent hours having a productive dialogue with Linville.
"We didn't agree on everything. But we were listening and working and collaborating," West said.
If elected, one of his major goals would be using tax incentives so that Wilsonville has the highest percentage of first-time homebuyers in the region. He also would like to improve the city's relationship with the airport. Airport interests have donated significantly to his campaign.
Regarding his tweets against multiculturalism, West said he's welcoming to all walks of life and that those tweets were meant to criticize Islamic extremism and regimes that outlaw homosexuality.
Overall, West is unapologetic about his beliefs and isn't afraid to address critics.
"I think in the role I play, I am honest and true," he said. "I think that people don't have to question where I stand and where I'm coming from."
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