Profile: Seriously Passionate About Progressive Causes
If it’s drug addiction, gay rights, medical marijuana, clean needle exchanges, abortion, and social justice (to name a few), it must be Jay Lassiter
Who he is: Jay Lassiter is an outspoken columnist and passionate advocate for a number of progressive causes, in particular drug addiction – an issue that he knows well. Lassiter is open about his own experience as a meth addict and spent nearly a month in rehab 13 years ago.
Home:Lassiter, 44, lives in Cherry Hill (“hashtag #itssohard” he said.)
Why you know his name: A regular presence in Trenton and at Democratic causes around the state, Lassiter’s activism takes a number of forms. He testifies at legislative hearings on behalf of needle-exchange and other harm-prevention programs, marches in support of gay rights, and rallies online support for social-equality campaigns. Lassiter writes a regular column for Politicker NJ, published by the Observer, and also for Leafly News, a marijuana-related website, and runs his own firm, Lassiter Consulting. And according to his taglines, he can also be found “often at brunch and always on Twitter @Jay_Lass.”
Lassiter works on a range of progressive issues, but has certain favorites in heavy rotation: medical marijuana (he’s a big fan), GLBT rights (he’s gay), abortion rights (he’s for them), equal justice for all ethnic groups (he’s quick to concede white privilege), and prison reform (it’s high time, no pun intended). But the cause closest to his heart is drug addiction; in particular the need for greater prevention and better treatment.
Rehab and recovery: Lassiter is extremely open about his time shooting meth: the daily hunt for drugs, the desperation that leads addicts to sell their bodies and reuse dirty needles, and the ravaging impact it has on the body and soul. He is also candid about the results, including his status as HIV positive. And he knows that his advantages, a white man backed by a caring family with means, helped him secure a spot in rehab and endure the 28-day stint.
“There’s something very special about their unconditional support,” Lassiter said of his family. “A lot of people in rehab didn’t have family, they didn’t have letters.
Lassiter was born in Evansville, IN (“I don’t get to plug my Hoosier roots that often!”) and raised in a conservative “Reagan family” that moved throughout the south and Midwest to follow his father’s military career. But despite their Republican-leaning tendencies, Lassiter said his family was always very supportive of him – both politically and personally.
“My dad loves Ronald Regan, Fox News and hates Hillary Clinton, but he’s also very proud of his left-wing radical gay son,” he said. While they were concerned about his sexual preference, Lassiter insists this was based on love. “Being gay was objectionable to them, not because they were homophobic, but because they didn’t want my life to be harder” when faced with prejudice and discrimination, he added.
Lassiter’s mother passed away six years ago; he treasures the six years they had together before her death, when he was sober. His father lives in Seattle and they talk at least once a day. (“And people wonder why I need medical marijuana!”) Lassiter said his younger brother, Adam, shares his sense of humor, but is a “legit swing voter.”
Learning on the job: After recovery, Lassiter coached tennis for a team of underprivileged children in Camden, a job he loved because it allowed him to work with poor kids (and also to wear shorts.) He enrolled in college classes, found a boyfriend and life seemed good – until his progress was derailed by an Achilles tendon injury.
Frustrated and fearing a return to drugs, Lassiter started writing. He blogged for free, posting where he could on drug addiction, gay rights, smoking bans. When Hurricane Katrina hit, he wrote about the devastation in New Orleans.
Eventually, his work attracted the notice of Juan Melli, the founder of BlueJersey.com, which launched in 2005 and was among the first blogs of its kind nationwide. The group had no formal training, Lassiter said, but the buzz around them grew quickly. “None of us could code, none of us were journalists, it was just that we were these mad liberals,” he recalled. “We disrupted everything.”
Lassiter went on to do communications work for the U.S. Sen. Rob Andrews and the late U.S. Sen. John Adler, both South Jersey Democrats. He did advocacy work to pass medical marijuana reform and revoke the death penalty, both approved under former Gov. Jon S. Corzine. When contacted by the Observer, it seemed like a perfect next step. His editor told him, “Go be you, and be as much you as you can be,” Lassiter said. “And that’s really empowering.”
Witty and sometimes ruthless, hisreflect his personality: open and direct, with a heavy dose of humor – much of it directed at himself. His preferences are clear and his approach is far from subtle: a recent column about a freeloader collecting multiple benefit packages included an unflattering photo and the title: “OINK OINK OINK OINK!”
But while he favors Democratic principles, Lassiter ‘s criticism is bipartisan. He called out Democratic leaders in Camden for their support for a project that displaced a needle-exchange program and has criticized Democratic Assemblyman Herb Conaway, a physician who chairs the health committee, for blocking a bill that could reduce opioid dependence.
In a recent piece on the Transportation Trust Fund agreement, he blasted both Gov. Chris Christie (a frequent target) and Senate President Steve Sweeney for their “spin” on the issue. “I wish you could see me roll my eyes right now because from here, the Christie/Sweeney plan looks like a big tax cut (for rich folks) that’s subsidized by higher prices at the pump for you and me,” Lassiter wrote.