Stephen Miller was not your ordinary politician. Devoted to basketball, gardening, and "Star Trek," the biologist entered politics on a dare from a girlfriend who was tired of his complaining. He arrived in Fayetteville in 1974 while hitchhiking to his native Wisconsin, and stayed here because a truck driver informed him that the town was teeming with cultural benefits and beautiful women. Miller often used his position on the Fayetteville City Council as a pulpit from which to spread the gospel of sustainable human interaction with the environment, locally and globally.
Though Stephen Miller later got into some legal difficulties, that shouldn’t take away from the interesting and often insightful views that he held. Though 14 years have gone by, and much has changed, a lot of the issues remain the same, and are likely to remain so for some time to come.
Q&A Interview with Stephen Miller/Richard S. Drake
Ozark Gazette: How would you describe your ward, Ward One? What seem to be the main concerns of those you represent?
Stephen Miller: Well, it’s really not my ward. It’s Kit Williams’ as well. It is the largest ward in Fayetteville. The way it was before with the city manager form of government, with no-ward limits, basically everybody being elected, or at least the vast majority, were from the north east part of Fayetteville, and that was the part of Fayetteville that got the most done for it.
Ward One people are really concerned about basic infrastructure in the south side of Fayetteville. It would be nice to say the loftier goals of tree preservation and sustainable development and things like that are all well and good, and a lot of people down here are really concerned about that, too. The basic thing down here first was “let’s get something done on the south side.” Kit and I both tried to get some money spent down here.
OG: You might be kind of honored by the fact that you represent a lot of working class Fayettevillians.
Miller: Well, I feel really strong about that. I have real strong working class roots. I’ve been a carpenter and electrician, I’ve worked as a steeplejack and a landscape person, even when I was going to school here in the 1980s. I try to relate to the average family where one guy works and the rest of the family stays home. That type of family is having a really hard time.
OG: How would you describe the differences between your current term and your previous?
Miller: In the first two years, there were people on the staff who were friendly to me immediately. And there were some people who were really quite taken aback, and some who probably thought I was like the beast of Revelations. But the last few years that I have been on the city council, I've got some really good working relationships with those who run the departments for the city. Where before if I wanted something done for the south side, it might take me weeks or months, I've learned more who to talk to, plus the fact that they know me, and they want to help me out, it has gotten easier to get things done. Whether its getting a street paved or getting someone's refrigerator moved off their porch. We had that street paver down here quite a bit after the city first bought it.
On the other hand, this council hasn't been quite as much fun as the first one was.
OG: Really? How so?
Miller: Well, the first council was a lot more politically diversified. Between me and Len Edens, you had every color of the political spectrum. Len and I ended up becoming friends, believe it or not. I appreciated Len in a lot of ways, and he appreciated me. A lot of times I found myself sitting around and drinking a cold one with Len.
We don't have that kind of camaraderie with this new council. We tend to be more politically homogenous. I don't feel that kind of camaraderie that we had back then. Woody Bassett has a really good heart. I like Woody a lot. He's straightforward and he sticks with his beliefs.
OG: What brought you into the realm of municipal politics?
Miller: At the time that Fayetteville politics was falling apart around everybody, due in part to the incinerator fiasco, people were pretty upset with unrepresentative government. We had an election that most people know about, in which we switched from a city board/managerial type of government to a mayoral/aldermanic form. At the time I was hanging out with a pretty dynamic girlfriend, and I like to say that I got into the alderman race because she dared me to.
What became the theme of my campaign in 1992 was that the city has been run by lawyers and real estate developers and various other types. Since most people in Fayetteville are very environmentally conscious, maybe a biologist, since I am one, might be a good idea on the city council. People seemed to think that made sense. So between the dare and thinking that the city needed somebody who was a true environmentalist, I thought I might be pretty good at politics.
OG: Long-term planning seems much to be on this council's mind. So many people seem to be concerned about Fayetteville's growth, which almost seems out of control. How do we plan for what seems to be almost inevitable growth?
Miller: I love it when people ask me this question. I don't get this question asked of me but five or six times a day. Fayetteville growth can be compared to industrial farming. A lot of people say, “Do you support farming?" Are we talking about using chemicals as far as the eye can see, or are you talking about sustainable agriculture, when we get the nutrients back into the soil, when you plow over your old crops, don't spray or use chemicals. Fayetteville growth is lot like that, too. We've had industrial farming growth over the last twenty years. I call it rape and scrape development where you go in and rape some land, then you scrape it clear, and then you put in development, and you plant some frilly little landscape plants. The Bradford Pier comes to mind.
I almost find myself playing Devil's Advocate. There are people on this council with such strong ideas about what they want to do, I'm afraid that with their attitude, and I don't want to mention any names, but with their attitude, and maybe highhandedness, they might put off enough people that the next election will swing the other way. And this is just flat out my gut feeling.
And this is happening in the whole country, too. The political spectrum swings back and forth. I would like to see the swings a little less drastic. I mean, look at the national elections of 1994. This country took a drastic swing to the right. Basically, the know-nothings again, which we've seen in the past. One-issue people elected our Congress.
OG: Getting back to the growth issue, is the idea of sustainable growth realistic?
Miller: The idea of sustainable growth is pretty slippery to pin down. It's like sustainable population, sustainable agriculture, it's where you make sure that you put into the cycle as much as you take out. And unfortunately, we've been taking way more out of the system than we have been putting into it. Resources are not unlimited, the more people we have the more we realize we are going to be up against that limit. Americans have had the luxury of throwing away anything that doesn't work any more. We don't have that luxury any more. If growth is going to be coupled with tree preservation, and solid waste has to be taken care of, and sewage, it depends on how we do these things. If we just take our solid waste and put it into an incinerator, or dump it somewhere and cover it with dirt, we're not being sustainable.
When we start looking at recycling, composting solid waste, and get away from land filling and incineration, then we're looking at sustainable forms of solid waste reduction, and sustainable development.
OG: What would you like to see the population of Fayetteville be?
Miller: The woods rat in me says 21,000 when I got here in 1974. Right now we're at about 55,000. I don't think the momentum will stop here as long as you have these magazines telling the world what a great place we are to live. We have to look at a regional thing here, too. I think this area could sustain 100,000 to 125,000 people. And out of that about 50,000 to 65,000 in Fayetteville. I think we can handle that.
Pragmatically I could almost see Fayetteville in the year 2020, and this is not what I want, we could have 100,000 people in Fayetteville easily. Ten years ago I used to tell people I was from Fayetteville, and they'd go, “How are things in North Carolina?” Now I tell people I'm from Fayetteville, and they go, “I hear it's really nice there!” (Laughs) So the word is out on the area.
I think it was Eugene, Oregon, years ago that had a sign up at the city limits that said,”Welcome to Eugene. Enjoy your stay, spend your money, please don't stay.” We're in Fayetteville because we love it. Can we deny other people the opportunity to live in such a wonderful place? Yet can we keep the ambiance that we have here, where you can drive fifteen minutes and be lost in the woods?
OG: Who is Stephen Miller when he isn't an alderman?
Miller: I do regard myself as, though it sounds trite to say it, as one of the last of the true Renaissance people. Life is pretty full right now. I'm a shit plant chemist and I'm proud of it. I work at the waste water treatment plant. That's forty or a little over hours a week. City business takes me about twenty to thirty hours a week, so that's seventy hours a week, ten hours a day. I love to sleep, so I get about six hours of sleep a day, so that takes care of sixteen hours a day.
What do I do the other eight hours of the day? Well, I like to garden, my number one priority. I try not to miss Star Trek. Of course it's pretty hard now that Channel 29 has put in on at three o’clock! Way too early.
I have innumerable hobbies. I am a martial artist of some skill, and you have to practice and keep up with it. My passion for the last couple of years has been the sword. Before that it was the six-foot staff. But right now I’m a swordsman looking for a world to inhabit, but there isn’t a whole lot of it.
I read science fiction when I can. I do read a lot. Basketball, smash mouth basketball. The greatest sport in the world. I spend a lot of time with my girl friend, too. I have a really wonderful woman I’m hanging out with, we get along really well.
I collect. I have stamps, a couple of ancient Roman coins. My music tastes in my old age have been running between German classical music and surprisingly, reggae. I love reggae. I can’t get enough of reggae. Got a new cat I really like, his name is raja. He is the spitting image of Rama. For anybody who remembers Rama, Raja is just like him.
OG: How do you view politics?
Miller: I find it repugnant, and I find it fun. There are some people I’ve met since being on the city council I flat-out think are not nice people. And yet, one thing I’ve learned since I’ve been on the city council, is that you can be nice to everybody. Because there is not one person out there in the world where you can’t find something you don’t have in common with. I have learned to find that one thread of commonality that I have with almost everybody I meet.
Being an alderman is very rewarding, at times. But a majority of the time it’s a pain in the butt.
OG: What frustrates you the most about it?
Miller: When people tell me about a problem, and I really can’t do anything about it. Another thing is, and I hope people read this, because I really, really, really try to get back to everybody that calls me and leaves me a message. But recently, for example, this guy called me three times. He never would tell me what he wanted, and I don’t like messages that say, “Call me.” Tell me what you want, so I have some idea what it is, or leave me a message on what your ideas are, and I’ll take them into consideration. There are days when I come back and I have twenty phone calls. I try to call everybody three times.
OG: What do you think of the “Village Concept” as it applies to Fayetteville?
Miller: The Village Concept is a catch-all, it’s one thing that is thrown out that doesn’t mean anything. Because you can build villages and people won’t come to them. But the whole idea is getting back to the neighborhood idea, where you actually know who your next-door neighbor is, and the person beyond that.
Ozark Gazette - October 16, 1995