Zell Miller, Longtime Georgia Political Fixture and Senator, Dead at 86

Democrat made waves in Senate when he endorsed George W. Bush

Former Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, who died  Friday, gave the keynote address at both a Democratic and Republican convention. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, who died  Friday, gave the keynote address at both a Democratic and Republican convention. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Jason Dick
Posted March 23, 2018 at 11:21am

Zell Miller, a longtime fixture of Georgia politics who came to symbolize the strange position conservative Democrats found themselves in as their party moved leftward nationally, has died. He was 86.

“My grandfather passed away peacefully surrounded by his family,” Bryan Miller, the former senator and governor’s grandson, said in a statement released Friday. “The people of Georgia have lost one of our state’s finest public servants.”

Miller, who hailed from the tiny Appalachian town of Young Harris and grew up and lived in a house made of river rock his mother built, was lieutenant governor of the Peach State for 16 years from 1975 to 1991, and its governor from 1991 to 1999. 

A strong supporter of education, he won the governorship on a platform of establishing a state lottery fund to finance increased education spending, and fit the mold of many a New Deal Democrat: hawkish on national security, conservative on cultural issues and liberal on social spending. 

The Republican candidate he defeated in the 1990 governor’s race was Johnny Isakson, who would eventually be elected to the House and later to the Senate, where he still serves. 

The Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally, or HOPE, scholarship and Georgia’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program established under Miller will arguably be his biggest legacy, at least in his home state.

The statement from Miller’s grandson announcing his death noted that HOPE scholarships have enabled more than 1.8 million students to go to college, and more than 1.6 million children have enrolled in the pre-K program. 

“These were his proudest achievements in his 46-year career in public service,” Bryan Miller said.

After serving out his second term as governor, Miller thought he had retired for good. But when Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell died in July 2000, Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes, a former rival of Miller’s, convinced him to accept an appointment to fill the vacant seat. He won a special election that November to fill out the rest of the term, serving through 2005. 

In Washington, Miller found himself in a time of roiling political realignment, and although he stayed in the Democratic Party, he mostly aligned himself with Republicans, whom he felt shared more of his longtime political beliefs. 

At the 1992 Democratic National Convention, he wholeheartedly endorsed his fellow Southern governor, Arkansas’ Bill Clinton, for president, and made an impassioned defense of what he said was the Democratic Party’s mission to look out for the little guy.

“We cannot all be born rich, handsome, and lucky, and that’s why we have a Democratic Party,” he quipped.

Twelve years later, he was endorsing President George W. Bush for re-election, ironically in the same venue, Madison Square Garden in New York City.

9/01/04.2004 REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION--Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., endorses President Bush as he delivers the keynote speech during during the Republican National Convention..CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY PHOTO BY SCOTT J. FERRELL
Miller endorses President George W. Bush as he delivers the keynote speech during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“No one should dare to even think about being the commander in chief of this country if he doesn’t believe with all his heart that our soldiers are liberators abroad and defenders of freedom at home. But don’t waste your breath telling that to the leaders of my party today. In their warped way of thinking, America is the problem, not the solution,” he thundered.

That speech led to an indelible moment in American politics. Afterward, when questioned by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews about some of his claims about that year’s Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Miller challenged the anchor to a duel. 

“I wish we lived in the days where you could challenge a person to a duel,” the senator said, as Matthews cackled on air. 

Miller did not run for re-election in 2004, and he retreated to Georgia to live out his days. 

He is survived by his wife, Shirley Carver Miller; two sons, Murphy and Matthew; four grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.