Former Gov. Zell Miller was remembered by local leaders as a giant from Northeast Georgia and a strong-willed, strong-talking governor who didn’t shy away from political battles with other well-established politicians in Atlanta.
Miller, 86, died on Friday, March 23, at his home in Young Harris.
He served as Georgia’s governor and lieutenant governor, a U.S. senator for Georgia, a state senator and a mayor of Young Harris in a public service career spanning from 1959 to 2005. Miller, who oversaw the creation of the HOPE scholarship, remains the longest-serving lieutenant governor in Georgia history.
Miller was being treated for Parkinson’s Disease. He died at home with family Friday morning. An obituary is available online at www.millerfoundation.com.
“He was a very good man, a very good governor,” said Carl Rogers, a former state representative from Gainesville who served during Miller’s final four years as governor.
Rogers was the only Democrat to win an open seat in all of Georgia in 1994, the same year Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party were washing over the Southeast and winning a large majority in the midterm elections under President Bill Clinton.
Miller, even as a Democrat in a state turning red, remained popular in Georgia and used it to his advantage.
“He had some strong-willed people (also in state government). Speaker (Tom) Murphy was the longest-serving speaker of the house in the United States,” Rogers said. “If they disagreed, they’d disagree, and they battled each other … and of course the media would always pick up on that, but they ended up being friends. All of them did.”
Miller’s opinions occasionally caught up with him. In his first run for governor in 1991, Miller campaigned on term limits and said he would only have one term in office. That changed while he was governor, and he decided to run for re-election in 1994.
That sort of switch and his tendency to adopt both conservative and progressive positions earned him the nickname “Zig-Zag Zell.”
Miller won re-election over Millner 51-48.9 in 1994.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said Miller was a huge political figure in the nation, not just in Georgia.
“He was a national giant from Northeast Georgia, and I looked up to him as a leader who never blinked in the face of a challenge or let politics eclipse his principles,” Collins said.
His family too said Miller ended his life having made a deep impact on the state.
“The people of Georgia have lost one of our state’s finest public servants,” said Bryan Miller, Zell Miller’s grandson and the CEO of the Miller Institute Foundation, in a Friday announcement. “As his grandson, I learned more from Zell Miller both professionally and personally than from anyone else I have encountered. He was more than my grandfather. He was my dear friend and mentor. I cherish all the time we spent together. I will never forget the lessons he taught me, his witty sense of humor, or his contagious smile. Our family will miss him terribly.”
Zell Miller was born Feb. 24, 1932, in Young Harris to Stephen Grady Miller and Birdie Bryan. His father died when he was an infant, and both parents were involved with local politics in his hometown in the North Georgia mountains — setting Miller on his path to political success beginning with his time as mayor of Young Harris.
Gov. Nathan Deal also served with Miller. Then a state senator, Deal and Miller were both Democrats at the time.
“Georgia has lost a favorite son and a true statesmen, and I’ve lost a dear friend. Zell’s legacy is unequaled, and his accomplishments in public service are innumerable,” Deal said in a Friday statement. “Without question, our state and our people are better off because of him.”
Miller’s most referenced and enduring achievement while in office remains the HOPE program, a lottery-funded scholarship that has awarded $9.4 billion in scholarships to Georgia students since its creation in 1992.
But 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 pottage.”
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.”
At the same time, Miller was the first governor to call for changing the Confederate emblem on the Georgia flag, and while he was governor he was celebrated for appointing what was then a record number of black judges to state courts.
Other Georgia politicians lined up to remember Miller on Friday.
Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, said Miller’s legacy will live on through the 1.8 million Georgians who have used the HOPE scholarship to pay for school.
“Zell Miller touched the lives of many as a teacher, Marine, public servant, and friend,” Perdue said.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said Miller had helped build the foundation of the now-prospering state, crediting “his passion for education, love for the people of our state, and dedication to giving Georgians the same opportunities that led a boy from a small mountain town to become one of the greatest leaders of the 20th Century.”
State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said he knew Zell Miller through his father-in-law, Jack Carey.
“He is an example of someone whose kingdom and legacy is not measured by what he had, but by what he did and the legacy he left behind,” Butch Miller said on Friday. “His commitment to this state and its citizens is truly commendable and will never be forgotten.”
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, is a former competitor of Zell Miller, having run against the late governor as a Republican in 1990.
“With the passing of Zell Miller, Georgia has lost its finest public servant, and I have lost a great friend,” Isakson said on Friday.
All offered condolences to Miller’s surviving wife, Shirley Carver Miller.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.