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Our Views: Georgia icon is still giving ’em Zell

Former governor, senator again confounds both parties with split support in fall campaigns

POSTED: August 24, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Nostalgia is popular these days: Retro fashions, disco and ’80s pop, “Throwback Thursdays” on social media. What’s old is new again, what used to be hip turned square and then back to cool.

To that list, add Georgia’s 2014 statewide elections.

 Perdue vs. Nunn. Deal vs. Carter. If someone just dropped in and saw those names, they’d think it was a political fantasy team lineup from years past.

It’s not just the names that are familiar to this point. The U.S. Senate race, in particular, had played close to the script, for the most part.

You could see it coming a mile off in the TV ads in recent weeks: Democrat Michelle Nunn painted as a typical Obama flunky, big-spending liberal; Republican David Perdue as a heartless business tycoon out of touch with the common folk. Wrong for Georgia, wrong for America, not looking out for you, only out for special interests, yada, yada, yada.

Polls so far show a tight race, more or less, which means little this early in the game when few voters are tuned in. Yet while both candidates are fresh faces despite their family ties, this race had nothing spectacular to offer in its opening weeks.

But then it got a shakeup from another old familiar name — and drawl — from the North Georgia mountains. Cue Zell.

Last week, former Gov. and Sen. Zell Miller threw his support behind Nunn, a fellow Democrat, calling her a “bridge builder” who he believes can help crack the never-ending partisan gridlock in Washington he experienced firsthand during his term in the Senate from 2000 to 2005.

But lest anyone think Miller is merely backing the nominee of his party, keep reading: Miller also stated he intended to vote for, if not actively endorse, Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican seeking re-election against state Sen. Jason Carter.

Miller said he respected the governor’s problem-solving approach considering the economic difficulties he inherited upon taking office.

Newcomers to our state may scratch their heads over these apparently contradictory endorsements. But longtime political observers in our state likely chuckled and shook their heads, saying “Yeah, that’s just Zell being Zell.”

Whatever one may think of Miller politically, it’s not surprising to see him go off the teleprompter and tack his sails into the wind of his choice. Throughout his career, he has been his own man from the get-go and never bowed to either party’s orthodoxy.

In his two terms as governor from 1991 to ’99, he was hardly what you’d call an ideologue. He proposed, and was able to pass, the law establishing the Georgia lottery for the HOPE Scholarship, a bipartisan move applauded to this day by Democrats and Republicans alike, and quite possibly the most popular legislation anyone can remember.

But he was no big tax-and-spender, and he showed his tough mettle with his “three strikes you’re out” proposal on crime.

After leaving the governor’s mansion, his retirement to his beloved home in Young Harris didn’t last long. He was appointed by then Gov. Roy Barnes, also a Democrat, to fill the Senate seat of GOP Sen. Paul Coverdell, who suddenly died on the day of the primary in 2000.

But though a lifelong Democrat, Miller sided with Republicans more often in Washington, even endorsing the re-election of President George W. Bush during the GOP Convention in 2004, an unprecedented cross-party move. That came just a few years after he endorsed Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, at the Democratic Convention with a stem-winder of a speech.

Though called a traitor by members of his party, Miller often  repeated the old Ronald Reagan line: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the party left me.”

Miller’s maverick streak stands out even more starkly in a time when most of our office holders are cookie-cutter copies of each other, all spouting party lines with what often seems to be half-hearted conviction. And House Districts are drawn by majority parties to keep opposition weak and favor incumbents with ideologically pure voter bases on each side.

This is a key reason nothing gets done in our nation’s capital. Both sides are dug into their trenches so deeply any attempt at compromise is seen as weakness, the key goal being not to solve problems but keep from handing any victory to the other side.

A politician who came out in favor of sunshine, puppies and warm cocoa would immediately be accused by the other side of advocating skin cancer, pit bull attacks and obesity.

Voters have hoped for someone to come along and break this spell to get the nation’s government off its treadmill of nonsense, but it only gets worse with each passing election.

The tea party movement offered a brief glimmer of nonpartisan hope, but it soon was co-opted by the far right and watered down by more conventional thinking. Now anyone who shows signs of wandering off the reservation is quickly made to chug the Kool-Aid and gets back in line with the rank and file.

And the few members of Congress who do buck their own parties wind up, as Miller was, marginalized and seldom able to make a difference against the tides of majority and minority power flowing against them.

We don’t know if Nunn or any of the other candidates will break free and develop an independent streak, willing to take each issue as it comes and find reasonable solutions rather than toe the line. But it’s nevertheless refreshing to see the sly old fox from Towns County decide to shuffle the deck a little, even if just to get our attention.

And in the midst of an election dripping with names from the past, some Georgians might be longing for a throwback ballot with a Miller on it this fall.


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