Put the rumors to rest: Jackson Town Councilor Jonathan Schechter has no intention of resigning his seat — with the idea being that he could be replaced by a younger woman of color — and says he will remain on the council for the second half of his four-year term.
Schechter said he worries that rumors of his possible resignation, which have dogged him for the last couple of months, will cause people to view him as “insensitive ... and/or oblivious to the world’s realities” and could cause people to lose faith in him as a public servant which “will also further erode faith in our system.” That erosion of faith in the system, Schechter wrote in an email to Town Council candidate Jessica Sell Chambers and the Rev. Mary Erickson, will make it “even harder to address our many systemic issues,” racism and sexism included among them.
The rumor mill began churning after Schechter took a meeting with Chambers and Erickson on July 10 at Persephone Bakery, where the women proposed — Schechter recalls that Chambers did most of the talking, with Erickson in a support role — that he resign his seat, ideally to be replaced by a younger woman of color who would be appointed by the rest of the council.
“They thought that I would be the most open to listening to what they had to say,” Schechter told the News&Guide in an interview. “They pointed out that ... out of the 10 County Commission and Town Council members, eight were white males — and that was not a representative cross section of the community, either ethnically or age-wise or gender-wise. And they thought that was a problem.”
Schechter said Chambers offered up some statistics regarding female representation on the Teton County Board of County Commissioners and Jackson Town Council, some of which he questioned the accuracy of, and relayed the fundraising difficulties and other challenges she encountered in her two experiences with unsuccessful campaigns for Town Council.
Schechter said Chambers, in essence, told him that “without some sort of assist, it was simply too hard for women to get elected to office in Teton County.”
“It was her belief that the only way to [change the makeup of the council and commission] was for one of the white males to step down so that a young female of color could get appointed in that person’s place,” Schechter recounted.
“At that point, you could have knocked me over with a feather, because I sure didn’t see that one coming.”
Both Schechter and Chambers know, and knew at the time of their meeting, that someone resigning a seat doesn’t get to name his or her replacement and there was no guarantee the council would vote to appoint a young woman of color as a replacement if he had stepped down. But Schechter said Chambers felt that if he “gave a dramatic speech upon my resignation, that it would really send a shock wave through the community and it would really have significance beyond just replacing one person.”
Schechter said he didn’t make an immediate decision that day, in part because he “was dumbfounded” by the request, which he said had never crossed his mind before Chambers mentioned it as a possibility. He told Chambers and Erickson that he would get back to them after some deliberation.
The following Tuesday, July 14, four days after the three had met at Persephone, Schechter emailed Chambers and Erickson to tell them that a woman who he does work with had called him and said she heard he was going to resign his council seat. Schechter said the woman knew of his meeting with Chambers in fairly accurate detail, and he expressed his frustration to Chambers and Erickson that in the few days that had passed since their meeting, rumors of his impending resignation were already “in fairly widespread circulation,” as he wrote in the email.
“Somehow between 10 o’clock on that Friday and 10 o’clock on Tuesday, people had started talking about — somehow the word had gotten out that I was considering resigning. And I know where it didn’t come from, which was me, and that’s what led me to write that note about being very upset that [Chambers and/or Erickson] would go around and talk about this,” Schechter said in his News&Guide interview. “Because it certainly, in my way of thinking, it violated the tone of our discussion, because I said I wanted to deliberate. Practically, it wasn’t a very good plan, from my perspective.”
Schechter said he was “incredibly crestfallen” that word had gotten out about the proposal for him to resign his seat so a young woman of color could be appointed “because it not only handicaps me and my effectiveness as an elected official ... but it also serves to really undermine confidence in government. And, at a time when faith in all of our institutions is waning, to take a step like this, that — whether inadvertently or advertently — has the potential to diminish faith in our institution; to what end? How does the town of Jackson benefit from rumormongering like this? ... It does contribute to slowly eroding confidence in government, and none of us benefit from that. And that’s what really makes my heart heavy.”
Chambers, meanwhile, stands by her idea, pointing to the difficulty women and people of color in Jackson Hole and Teton County have in getting elected. Chambers also wrote in her email response to Schechter on July 14 that she had not spoken with anyone about their meeting.
“In order to give access right now, people have to relinquish some of their power,” Chambers said in an interview. “Otherwise, it’s a really strong, hard road for women, and especially people of color in this community, because we just don’t have the access to fundraising, time, support, etc., etc.”
Chambers said the idea for a white, male elected official to step down and be replaced by a young woman of color arose out of the unrest following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota at the end of May.
“People were protesting and gathering on the square, and people were making calls for better representation,” she said. “I believe it was Sophia Schwartz and a couple people from Act Now JH had sat down with different commissioners ... looking at these systemic issues that we have in the community, and she posed the question: ‘Who would be willing to step down to make room for the appointment of a person, ideally someone of color?’”
She said Schechter was chosen as the man to approach because he had been thoughtful and open-minded throughout conversations they had regarding Black Lives Matter and police brown bag sessions he held.
“He seemed very earnest about wanting to do better, wanting to know more, and he also seemed very exasperated and tired with the workload he had on the council, in addition to his various jobs,” Chambers said.
Ultimately, Schechter wrote in a July 19 email to Chambers and Erickson that he intends to serve his constituents through the remainder of his term. He added that “because the issues you raise are systemic, I feel a systemic approach is the best way to address them,” referring to the underrepresentation of women and minorities on local elected boards and councils.
And he hopes the rumors are put to bed, writing in that same email: “Regarding the rumor mill, the fact I am now fielding questions about resigning has put me in a very difficult spot. I don’t know how these rumors got started, but I do know I am now enmeshed in a process I haven’t initiated, contributed to, nor consented to.”
Meanwhile, Jen Simon, the News&Guide’s Equity State columnist who founded the Wyoming Women’s Action Network, said that however it has to happen, it’s important that Jackson and Teton County have more female representation.
Simon was not comfortable specifically addressing the situation with Schechter and Chambers, as she was not previously aware of it, but she did say: “We need to look at the fact that just a few years ago we had greater representation by women among the five town councilors and the five county commissioners. Right now, two of the 10 are women, and it’s really important that we make sure we have women represented on our elected bodies, especially when we are still in the midst of a pandemic, which has laid bare our real structural challenges; a whole series of types of inequality, a whole series of policies that don’t include [things like] child care, support for families, and support for working women, in particular. Those are best addressed by having more women’s voices in elected office.”