Zell Miller, a Democrat and former governor and senator of Georgia who helped create the state's HOPE scholarship and spent the final years of his life as a loud advocate for Republicans, died Friday at the age of 86.
Miller, who grew up in the small community of Young Harris in rural northeast Georgia, became mayor in 1959 at the age of 27 after a stint in the Marines. Miller, who was also working as a professor at Young Harris College, won a seat in the state Senate the next year as a Democrat. He notably did oppose a school segregation bill from the floor of the chamber during his first year in office, but he was far from a supporter of civil rights at that early point in his career.
Miller challenged six-term Rep. Phillip Landrum in the primary in 1964 for a seat in the northeast corner of the state. While Landrum was a staunch segregationist, Miller argued during that campaign that President Lyndon Johnson was "a Southerner who sold his birthright for a mess of dark pottage," comments he would later disavow. Miller lost 52-43, and he lost his 1966 rematch to Landrum 54-40.
Miller soon landed on his feet and rose to become chief of staff to Gov. Lester Maddox. While the governor was a notorious segregationist, observers credited Miller for being a moderating influence on him. Jimmy Carter, Maddox's successor and longtime rival, also appointed Miller to the state Pardons and Paroles board. Miller ran for lieutenant governor in 1974 and defeated, among many others, his future Senate colleague Max Cleland in the primary. Miller would go on to spend 16 years in the office, the longest anyone ever held that post.
However, Miller tried to leave it in 1980 when he challenged four-term Sen. Herman Talmadge in the primary. Talmadge, a longtime Georgia institution and the chair of the powerful Agriculture Committee, was facing a number of ethics problems (he had been denounced by the Senate for "gross neglect of his duty"), he had also gone through a messy divorce, and there were reports of widespread drinking. Polls initially showed Talmadge trailing Miller by as much as 17 points, and the incumbent only took 42 percent of the vote to Miller's 24 in the first round. Miller, who had the support of prominent black politicians as well as organized labor, argued the incumbent was dishonest and an embarrassment.
However, Talmadge rebutted Miller's attacks on his character by portraying him a big-spending liberal. And while the senator, who had once been a vocal segregationist, had apologized for his previous stances, he repeatedly reminded rural voters that Miller was supported by Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and state Sen. Julian Bond, who were both black. Talmadge beat him 59-41 but the damage was done, and he lost in November to Republican Mack Mattingly in a shocker. During that campaign, Miller acquired the nickname "Zig Zag Zell" for allegedly being so unpredictable. Miller hated it at the time, though he'd later admit there was some truth to it.
Miller decisively won two more terms as lieutenant governor afterwards, and he sought the governorship in 1990. Miller faced a crowded primary against Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, state Sen. and future Gov. Roy Barnes, and even Lester Maddox, his old boss. Miller campaigned on setting up a state lottery to fund education and other programs, which was a very risky proposal in a state with a large conservative Christian voter base. The lieutenant governor took first place in the primary with 41 percent, while Young outpaced Barnes 29-21 for the second runoff spot.
While Young tried hard to drive up black turnout and win over enough white voters to become the state's first African-American governor, Miller was always seen as the favorite. Miller beat Young 62-38 and went on to defeat GOP state Rep. Johnny Isakson, who would succeed him in the Senate 14 years later, 53-45.
As governor, Miller successfully pushed both the legislature and voters to approve the HOPE scholarship program, which paid college tuition to students who maintained a B average. The program was funded by the state lottery Miller also established. Miller also convinced the legislature to end the food sales tax. Miller was also a prominent supporter of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. Miller was one of the keynote speakers at that year's Democratic National Convention where he declared, "We can't all be born rich and handsome and lucky, and that's why we have a Democratic Party."
However, Miller soon ran into political opposition at home. As Atlanta prepared to host the 1996 Summer Olympics, business leaders pressured him to remove Confederate imagery from the state flag. Miller took up the cause, saying in his State of the State address that the Confederate symbolism had been added in 1956 "to identify Georgia with the dark side of the Confederacy — the desire to deprive some Americans of the equal rights that are the birthright of all." But the legislature didn't go along with him, and he eventually gave up. Miller ended up winning re-election in the 1994 GOP wave just 51-49 against businessman Guy Millner, and the HOPE scholarship's popularity was probably what saved him.
Miller left office in 1999 with an 85 percent approval rating, and he soon returned to teaching. But in the summer of 2000, Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell died, and it was up to Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes to appoint his successor. Miller had turned down Clinton's attempts to recruit him to challenge Coverdell in 1998, and he was reluctant to accept a Senate appointment. But Barnes was convinced only the popular Miller could win the seat for the Democrats, and Miller eventually gave in. Miller beat Republican Mack Mattingly, the man who had defeated Herman Talmadge after the bitter 1980 primary, 58-38 to win the final four years of Coverdell's term.
Miller had accepted the appointment saying he wouldn't "play the partisan game" in Washington, and he was anything but a loyal Democrat. Miller was an early and enthusiastic supporter of George W. Bush's tax cut bill. Miller later said that the September 11 attacks also changed him. Miller became more and more socially conservative in Washington. While he had supported abortion rights as governor and invited the Gay Games to Atlanta, he had since become an angry abortion foe and supported a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage.
Miller did back his colleague Max Cleland's 2002 re-election campaign by appearing in ads for him. Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss tried to use Miller as a wedge against Cleland by arguing that his opponent had supported the Democratic leadership far more than Miller had, and highlighting how Miller was considerably more conservative. Miller defended Cleland by reassuring TV viewers that the two senators voted together more than 80 percent of the time; Miller also appeared in ads for Barnes, who was in a tough re-election campaign for governor. But both Democrats lost, and Miller wouldn't support another Democrat in a major race for a long time to come.
Miller decided not to seek another term in 2004, and while he never switched parties, he became a full-throated supporter of Bush's re-election campaign. Miller delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Republican National Convention where, among other things, he proclaimed that Democratic opponent John Kerry was "more wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure" on national security.
After his speech, Miller appeared on MSNBC afterwards and got into a nasty fight with host Chris Matthews. Miller concluded the interview by telling Matthews, "I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel!" The duel never happened, and while Miller would later say in 2012 that he "embarrassed myself," he added that Matthews "is not one of my favorite people."
Miller remained an impassioned Democratic critic in retirement, and he promoted Republican candidates at home. Miller appeared in a 2006 ad for GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue even though Democratic candidate Mark Taylor had been a Miller ally during his governorship. And while Miller had opposed Chambliss during the 2002 campaign, he urged Georgians to re-elect him six years later because he "could well be the last man standing between a far, far left liberal agenda sailing through the Senate." Miller was no fan of Barack Obama either, and he supported Newt Gingrich's 2012 presidential bid.
But while Miller backed GOP Gov. Nathan Deal's 2014 re-election campaign, "Zig Zag Zell" still had one more surprise in him. That same year, Miller starred in an ad for Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn, and extolled her as a bridge builder who could work across party lines. While it was possible he was doing it out of respect for her father, former Sen. Sam Nunn, Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly argued that Miller might have just admired Nunn's nonprofit work. Kilgore also observed that Miller was proud of his record of appointing women to important posts as governor, and might have seen Nunn as a continuation of that legacy.