Tucson Mayor George Miller Has Survived 20 Years Of Local Politics.
By Dave Devine
THE YEAR 1977 was a long time ago. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Vietnam was still a fresh memory, and the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated pro football.
In local politics 20 years is an eternity. But Mayor George Miller's 20th anniversary on the City Council passed quietly in December. Recently, The Weekly asked him to reflect on his political past and the changes he's seen in Tucson during his time in government.
In 1977 Miller successfully ran in the Ward 3 Democratic primary against Bob Goodpaster and incumbent James Hooton, who'd won office in a recall election earlier in the year. Then he faced Republican Kile Jarvis in the general election.
Among the issues Miller emphasized in his first council campaign was doing something about the local unemployment rate. It stood at 7.7 percent for Pima County at the time.
Today, the rate is much lower, but another--more difficult--issue has surfaced. A growing income disparity between the haves and have-nots has developed here and throughout the United States. Miller told The Arizona Daily Star a few weeks ago that closing this income gap is the biggest issue facing every level of government.
He believes that equalizing educational funding across the state and increasing job-training opportunities are required to address the problem. "This is a very expensive proposition," Miller says, "but it's less expensive than leaving things the way they are." He would also like to see the City of Tucson put more money into job-training programs operated by Pima County government.
Miller says school tax equalization is extremely important in attracting better-paying jobs here. Why would a firm come to Tucson, when it can go to Maricopa County and pay lower school taxes? Tucson is less attractive to higher-paying manufacturing firms because of that.
He describes a sort of cycle of discouragement which is self-destructive for local school districts. It goes from local schools needing more money, which means increased taxes, which means higher paying firms won't locate here because of the higher taxes. The result: fewer jobs for graduating students.
So why did he talk about annexation incentives instead of the income-gap issue when he addressed the local business community at his recent state-of-the-city speech? "It had received extensive publicity already," Miller says, adding he wanted to discuss his views on the long-term impact of suburban incorporations.
Back in the late 1970s, there were other things to worry about. Within 15 months of taking office, Miller had twice unsuccessfully sued his colleagues on the City Council.
The first suit was over a vote to acquire the privately owned Old Pueblo Transit Company to make it part of the SunTran system. The new council member thought they needed more financial information before acting. The second suit concerned funding to enlarge the city court building after the voters had turned the idea down.
Showing a remarkable memory for details of the two cases, Miller says today, "People thought I was a little strange for doing that. They didn't take the two issues as seriously as I did." He admits, however, that both council decisions were within their legislative discretion.
By early 1979 Miller was pushing for city elections to be by ward only. According to a story in the Star, "He is a believer in ward politics and would like to see councilmen elected by the ward and not by the city at large. 'For a lot of things, there ought to be more, rather than less, pork barrel,' " he said then.
But Miller eventually changed his mind about ward-only elections and opposed the idea until recently, when he changed his mind once again, supporting the concept as part of his annexation package.
He says he was against the idea because he thought council members elected at large would be more responsive to the needs of the entire city, and thus make for better government. But now he calls that a theory for the classroom, not one that works in real life.
The practical reality, Miller says, is that council members focus on their own wards' issues anyway. From that standpoint, he thinks ward-only elections are worthwhile. Plus, they may have the potential to induce county residents to be annexed, since as new city residents they would have more control over who represents them.
But the City Council's recent rejection of the proposal will require an initiative drive to put the issue on the ballot. Miller says he was assured the day before the council vote that he had enough support for it to pass.
"But in this business," he adds, "you only have a person's word."
Also during his first term, Miller was a strong supporter of building so-called "bantam interchanges" to ease Tucson's traffic problems. Almost 20 years later, he's still advocating grade-separated interchanges, a redesigned and smaller variation on the earlier idea.
He sees them as a realistic alternative to freeways. They're expensive, he admits, but much cheaper than a cross-town freeway. After 20 years of failing to get one built. Miller remains optimistic that a grade-separated intersection will someday be constructed.
What does George Miller see as the most encouraging change in Tucson since he was first elected to the City Council? "Participation from neighborhood associations," he replies--a surprising response from a politician who has never been seen as a strong neighborhood supporter.
The most discouraging change, Miller says, is that it's now more difficult to make decisions which are in the best interest of the entire community. More City Council votes today, he says, are purely political in nature, or may be only incidentally good for the community.
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