Zell Miller dies at 86

[private]Zell Bryan Miller, the man from the mountains who transformed Georgia by implementing the HOPE scholarship program for aspiring college students, died early Friday morning at the age of 86 after a long period of declining health.

House Speaker David Ralston announced Miller’s death to the House of Representatives, calling him “one of the greatest governors of the 20th century. He gave Georgia HOPE.”

“Georgia has lost a favorite son and a true statesmen, and I’ve lost a dear friend,” Gov. Nathan Deal said in a prepared statement. “Zell’s legacy is unequaled and his accomplishments in public service are innumerable.”

The state Senate observed a moment of silence at his passing.

Miller had a long and controversial career in Georgia politics that included service as a state senator, executive secretary to Gov. Lester Maddox, four terms as lieutenant governor, two terms as governor, and a partial term in the U.S. Senate as a replacement for the late Paul Coverdell.

It was during his first term as governor that he made a successful push for the legalization of a state lottery, with the proceeds going to a HOPE scholarship fund that provided grants for students with high grades.

That state lottery has provided the funding for college scholarships for hundreds of thousands of students since its start in 1993 and has been copied by several other states.

Miller also stirred up more than his share of rancor and anger among Georgia politicians by constantly changing his position on major issues – giving him the nickname “Zig-Zag Zell.”

He was for many years a Democrat, delivering an evocative keynote address at the 1992 Democratic National Convention on what it meant to be a member of that party.

Listen to this voice.

It’s a voice flavored by the Blue Ridge; a voice straight out of a remote valley hidden among the peaks and hollows of the Appalachian Mountains – a voice that’s been described as more barbed wire than honeysuckle.

That this kind of voice could travel here from a forgotten corner of Appalachia is a testament to the grace of God and the greatness of the Democratic Party.

This week we are gathered here to nominate a man from a remote, rural corner of Arkansas to be president of the United States of America.

That is powerful proof that the American dream still lives – at least in the Democratic Party.

Bill Clinton is the only candidate for president who feels our pain, shares our hopes and will work his heart out to fulfill our dreams.

Ten years later, when he was in Washington as a U.S. Senator, Miller pulled one of his famous Zig-Zags and became an enthusiastic supporter of President George W. Bush.

So thorough was Miller’s conversion that he was invited to give the keynote speech at the 2004 Republican Convention, where he delivered an angry diatribe against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

Although that Zig-Zag cost him many friendships among his old Democratic Party colleagues, it never seemed to bother Miller all that much. But he never officially changed parties either.

Miller traced his hard-headedness to a hardscrabble upbringing in the mountains of Towns County, where he was born on Feb. 24, 1932.

His father, a professor at Young Harris College, died when Miller was less than a month old, leaving him to be raised by his mother Birdie. “My mama didn’t just do the best she could; she did the best anyone could,” Miller wrote.

Miller credited a stint in the Marine Corps with shaping him up and getting him on the right path that led to his long and distinguished political career.

He was first elected to the state Senate in 1960 from a Towns County district, ran unsuccessfully for Congress, and found a home at the capitol as Lester Maddox’ top aide.

Miller was elected to the first of four terms as lieutenant governor in 1974. In the middle of his second term, he ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary against U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge. Talmadge’s subsequent loss in the general election to Mack Mattingly is attributed to that bruising primary campaign.

Miller continued to bide his time before finally winning the first of two terms as governor in 1990. He was considered to be Georgia’s most popular governor ever at the end of his second term, but his political career wasn’t over just yet.

When Sen. Paul Coverdell died unexpectedly in 2000, Gov. Roy Barnes appointed Miller as the replacement, with Miller serving out the remaining four years of Coverdell’s term.

© 2018 by The Georgia Report


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