I interviewed the Fayetteville aldermen just before he left in 2002. Though not intending to be controversial, the mild-mannered Zurcher soon found himself under attack after he took office, simply by presenting the Human Dignity Resolution (which extended job protection to gay and lesbian city employees) to the City Council.
“Are you a Christian, Mister Zurcher?” was all too typical of the snide remarks pointed in his direction at council meetings by those who would use their own religious faith as a political cudgel.
A lot of public officials have whined and even resigned over similar (or much less harsh) criticism from the public. Not Randy Zurcher.
Randy Zurcher's Song
Controversial alderman bids farewell to Fayetteville
At the final Sierra Club meeting he attended in Fayetteville, now-departed Fayetteville Alderman Randy Zurcher was presented by Mayor Dan Coody with a key to the city, thanking him for his hard work for his chosen community. “This is a huge honor, and one that I do not take lightly,” Zurcher said of the award. “It is nice to be appreciated. My work here has always been a labor of love, and I feel like the mayor knows that.”
Randy Zurcher may have left Fayetteville, but it is a sure bet that he will be remembered for a long time. A controversial figure, he has long been both admired and reviled. For many, the first sign that Zurcher was a human lightning rod came during the battle over the Human Dignity Resolution in 1998. The proposal, which would have barred the city from terminating anyone because of their sexual orientation, produced a firestorm in a city long-known for its all-inclusiveness.
Looking back over that fiery summer, Zurcher says, “I learned that this community is not as progressive as it may appear. This is a progressive community to some degree, but there are definitely two sides to it. I didn’t realize that this issue would bring up so much hate and fear. It disappointed me.”
In 1996, the young Zurcher was elected to the Fayetteville city council, a political lamb with no real experience or name recognition. But that was to change quickly, as Zurcher and fellow Alderman Len Schaper became known as the only progressives on a council dominated by those who felt that the business of Fayetteville was business.
When Zurcher talks about his constituents in Ward Two, it is obvious that he respects them a great deal. “Ward Two is the most diverse, most educated and the most progressive ward in Fayetteville.”
Yet in 1998, the now divorced Zurcher, having moved with his wife to a home in Ward One, decided to run from that area. This move prompted his resignation form the city council. To say that he lost the election would be putting it mildly. Given the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, he can see the reasons for his loss.
“The two main factors were I was running against Robert Reynolds, who had lived in the ward for 20 years or more, and had a lot of support there. The other was definitely the Human Dignity Resolution. It wasn’t so much that people disagreed with the issue, but they were upset with all the fighting about it.”
He looks forward to his new life in San Francisco, and had several job interviews set up before he left Fayetteville. Whatever he decides to do, Zurcher says that it will certainly have to do with activism for progressive causes.
Some have been critical of his leaving, especially so soon after being re-elected to the city council. Zurcher acknowledges that by saying, “I feel some guilt about it. I never thought I’d leave another term unfinished. I never intended to leave Fayetteville.” Warming to his subject, he adds,
“Moving for love is a little different from just dropping things and moving. When you’ve found that person that really knows you, and still likes you (he laughs at this point) you need to stick with them. People who know the whole story of the 2000 campaign know that without this woman I would never have been elected. My priorities have changed. Being here is no longer my first priority.”
Over the years, Zurcher has been the source for many stories in the press, giving fodder to his political enemies to either curse him, or laugh at his mistakes. Did he ever feel particularly abused?
“Yes, but I’m not going to play a victim. I stick my head up, and when you do that, you get shot at. I’m an easy target. I don’t bluff, and I don’t waffle.” He feels that he has owned up publicly to his mistakes.
Like anyone in his position, he leaves some important unfinished business. He particularly regrets that he won’t be in Fayetteville for the impact fee vote.
“The battles that I have started have at least hit a plateau with the cable vote. The Youth Advocacy Committee has been fairly directionless for the past six months or so, and I’ll take the blame for that. We had a special meeting where they appointed a new chair, and brain stormed with the new members, so I feel better about that.”
In addition to his stint as alderman, recently Zurcher also served as a conservation organizer for the Sierra Club; the only full-time staffer in Arkansas. His work entailed working with the public, the press, elected officials and Sierra Club members to educate the general public about issues concerning national forests.
Born in Midwest City, Oklahoma, he grew up in Spencer. Both are suburbs of Oklahoma City. While attending John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Zurcher would sometimes visit Fayetteville with friends. They enjoyed visiting the Dickson Street Bookshop, and then go to eat at Hugo’s. “Every so often we would go to a club, which was very much a no-no at JBU.”
After graduation, Zurcher felt the need to get out of the area, and ended up in East bay, California, where he taught at a private Baptist school. Teaching at the Junior High level, he taught classes in English, Science, Drama and the Bible. He soon tired of the strict yoke about his shoulders.” Being forced to teach from a Bob Jones text made me realize I’m not very conservative.”
Bob Jones University is one of the most spiritually conservative in the nation. He grimaced as he recalled that as a science teacher, he was not allowed to teach evolution. Even so, he found small ways to rebel. “I would actually skip over the parts in Bible class that I felt were erroneous.”
Today, Zurcher has been involved with the Unitarian Universalists since 1996. He says that he looks to Jesus Christ as an example of how to live one’s life.
Casting about for a new home after his disenchantment in California, he remembered Fayetteville as being the most progressive city in the part of the country he wanted to live in.
Zurcher feels that apathy is a major problem in Fayetteville at the present time. “I got an E-mail from an environmentalist, who said that her friends said I had left them holding the bag. But if you look at the city council attendance for the past year, I and a few others have been holding the bag for a while now.
“Without concerned citizens who care enough to show up at meetings, we will move in the wrong direction.”
But he sees big changes coming for Springdale, citing the vocal involvement of voters in that community. “There are several groups organizing in Springdale. But anyone who is brave enough to speak against the establishment in Springdale can count on having their character attacked. People do get viscous where it comes to money.”
Newspaper readers in Northwest Arkansas were recently entertained with the story of the Springdale aldermen who wanted their mayor to ask Fayetteville’s Dan Coody to instruct Zurcher not to get involved in Springdale politics. This followed Zurcher’s appearance, as a Sierra Club organizer, at a Springdale press conference.
Zurcher was one of the few elected officials in Fayetteville who has used public access television successfully to promote his agendas. In fact, he says that the tree-sit issue in 2000 set the tone for his re- election. He documented the entire affair, bringing the issue home to Fayetteville voters in ways that nightly news teams either couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Zurcher often ran lengthy clips from city council meetings in order to drive his points home to the audience.
“Public access is vital to local issues,” he maintains. “I think people underestimate the number of people who watch Community Access Television. I won my run-off by about 100 votes, and I can almost certainly say that those 100 people had seen my show sometime.”
But what does a man like Randy Zurcher do for enjoyment, in the little off-time he has? “I have a very close-knit group of friends that enjoy games. We have had a weekly poker game going on since 1995.” He also enjoys being outside a great deal.
For inspiration in his life, Zurcher looks to men like Woody Guthrie, who he admires for standing up for working men and women. He also looks to men such as Martin Luther King, Jr., independent Vermont congressman Bernie Sanders, and Ralph Nader.
An unabashed Green Party member, he feels that the Greens should be putting most of their emphasis on local issues, rather than merely organizing every four years for the presidential race. Though he is unapologetic about supporting Ralph Nader, he says that, “George Bush is the worst thing for the environment in so many ways.”
He is also concerned that Americans are being persuaded to give up their liberties, all due to the so-called War on Terrorism. Still, he feels that the American people will come around in the end.
Though he entertains thoughts of running for office again in the future, for now Zurcher is content to let others seek office, in order that he might serve in other ways. Still, he remembers Fayetteville as his favorite place to live in so far, and feels that he is leaving on a good note.
And while he may be across the country making a new life for himself, he says that he will always be supportive of those who supported him, and stood by him, when it seemed no one else would.
Ozark Gazette - March 11, 2002