ATLANTA (AP) — Former U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, a lifelong Democrat and the father of Georgia’s lottery-funded HOPE scholarship while serving as governor, died Friday. He was 86.
Miller died at his home in north Georgia, said Lori Geary, a spokeswoman for the Miller Institute Foundation. His grandson, Bryan Miller, said in a statement the former senator and governor “passed away peacefully surrounded by his family.” Miller’s family revealed last year that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Miller served two terms as Georgia’s governor from 1991 through 1999. His signature accomplishment was the HOPE scholarship, which paid college tuition to Georgia students maintaining a “B” average and was funded by establishing a state lottery. After leaving the governor’s office, Miller was called out of retirement in 2000 at age 68 to fill the final four years of a U.S. Senate term.
“Georgia has lost a favorite son and a true statesman, and I’ve lost a dear friend,” Republican Gov. Nathan Deal said. “Zell’s legacy is unequaled and his accomplishments in public service are innumerable. Without question, our state and our people are better off because of him.”
Miller proved an enduring presence in Georgia politics for four decades.
As Georgia’s governor, he was considered one of the state’s most successful and popular modern chief executives, compiling a progressive record in education and tax policy.
He was the father of a lottery for education that pays college tuition and fees for high school graduates with a “B” average, and successfully pressed the Legislature to remove the sales tax from food. He had served a record 16 years as lieutenant governor before that.
He wrote later, “I only hope that the totality of my forty-year record since then is proof that they were the words of someone who at that time was a political weakling, but not a racist.”
After heading to Washington in 2000, Miller found himself increasingly critical of his own party for veering from mainstream values, making him a hero the Republicans with whom he often voted and a turncoat to some Democrats.
Miller never changed parties, though many Democrats clamored for him to do so after he went to the podium at the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004 to deliver a stem-winder of a keynote speech for then-President George W. Bush.
Calling him a man with “a spine of tempered steel,” Miller hailed Bush as “the man I trust to protect my most precious possession: my family.”
Twelve years earlier to a different convention in the very same hall, Miller told national Democrats Bill Clinton was the man America needed.
“We can’t all be born rich and handsome and lucky, and that’s why we have a Democratic Party,” he said.
It was precisely the kind of unpredictable behavior that earned the independent-minded ex-Marine the nickname “Zig-Zag Zell.” The moniker initially infuriated him but in later life he acknowledged there was some truth to it.
“I would be suspect of any politician who doesn’t change their mind on some issues,” he once acknowledged.
But of his battle with fellow Democrats, which won him national attention and made his carping book, “A National Party No More,” a national best-seller, Miller insisted it was the party that had changed – not him.
His political career wasn’t without regrets. Miller failed in 1964 to unseat a popular north Georgia congressman and Miller later said he was ashamed of that race. That’s because at the time he voiced opposition to the Civil Rights Act and denounced President Lyndon Johnson as “a Southerner who has sold his birthright for a mess of dark porridge.”
A succession of state jobs followed, during which he worked both for the ultraconservative Gov. Lester Maddox and for Maddox’s political nemesis, progressive Gov. Jimmy Carter.
Miller won the governorship in 1990 at age 58, easily defeating former Atlanta Mayor and ex-UN Ambassador Andrew Young in a Democratic runoff and then defeating Republican Johnny Isakson, who would succeed him 15 years later in the Senate.
His campaign had been keyed to implementing a lottery for education, an idea he had opposed years before but now embraced as a way to provide free college for anyone willing to work hard.
He made good on his promise, earning first the Legislature’s support and then voter approval for his idea to use lottery revenue to pay for college tuition and fees for students who graduated from high school with a “B” average.
The program was a rousing success and its popularity probably saved him from defeat in 1994 when he sought re-election, despite an earlier statement that he would only serve one term and the firestorm he ignited in 1993 with an unsuccessful attempt to remove the fighting banner of the Confederacy from the state flag.
With Atlanta due to host the summer Olympics in 1996, Miller was under pressure from many in the business community to remove a symbol that many associated with segregation. But many whites, and most legislators, opposed the idea.
In a stirring State of the State address, he told lawmakers it was time to rip the old Confederate symbol from the state flag, arguing it was 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 he couldn’t muster the votes and ultimately abandoned the effort. His successor, Democrat Roy Barnes, would succeed in 2001 only to lose his re-election bid.
When Miller left office in January 1999, his public life looked at an end. Then Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell died in July 2000 just two years into his second term. Democratic Gov. Barnes chose Miller as a successor.
Miller accepted the appointment – and later that summer was elected to the balance of the term – but declared in his first news conference as senator-to-be that he would “serve no single party but rather 7.5 million Georgians … in the same spirit of dignity, integrity and bipartisan cooperation that were the hallmarks of Paul Coverdell’s career.”
It was the first sign that Miller intended to be a different kind of politician, and Georgians began to see that when, shortly after taking office, Miller volunteered to be a Democratic sponsor of the 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut that President Bush sought.
His tilt toward the GOP became even more pronounced after Sept. 11, 2001. He told the AP in a 2004 interview: “That changed everything. It changed everything with this world, everything with the nation, everything with me, and it should change everything with every thinking American.”
For Democrats who wondered why he didn’t change parties, Miller wrote:
“I was born a Democrat. It’s not simply a party affiliation; it’s more like a birthmark for me and many of my fellow mountaineers … I would no more think of changing parties than I would think of changing my name.”
At best a reluctant senator, Miller was never happy in Washington and never looked to serve another term. In 2005, he turned the position over to Johnny Isakson, the man he’d beaten for governor 15 years earlier, and settled into private life as a lobbyist for a law firm, an occasional analyst on the Fox News Channel and an author.