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Miller’s rise in state Senate driven by his personal touch
Gainesville businessman with strong ties to governor rises to post as Senate president pro tem
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Sen. Butch Miller stands in his new office on Tuesday at the Georgia State Capitol. Miller was selected by the GOP caucus in the Senate to be the next Senate president pro tempore, the top job for a state senator. - photo by Nick Bowman

In the span of an hour, the senator in a dark suit and striped blue tie hustled to and from his corner office in the Capitol, pausing an interview a few times as he met with constituents, appeared on the Senate floor, huddled with lobbyists, answered texts and screened calls.

He nodded through floor calendar updates from staffers, shared personal stories with the men who stopped by to say hello to their old acquaintance, and told jokes — followed by his own scraped-gravel laugh.

Call him Butch, Gainesville’s busy man.

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, sat down with The Times in his new Capitol office Tuesday, Feb. 13, to talk about his tenure in state government, his new role as Senate president pro tempore and his family life.

Miller was born Cecil Terrell Miller to Dr. Cecil Miller and Mac Miller on Nov. 24, 1956 in Macon. He came by the name Butch before he was born: His father hoped for a girl and called the unborn child Susan; his mother wanted a boy and called her child Butch.

Butch won out.

Born in Macon, raised in Buford and married to a girl from Gainesville, the salesman’s rise from busy volunteer, church man and business owner to among the most powerful men in the Senate has Georgia politicos wondering what’s next for Miller.

In the near term, he said he just wants to keep a handle on the Senate.

With good relationships not just with Republican and Democratic senators, but also with members of the Georgia House — which has no shortage of bad blood with the upper chamber — Miller said his goal in the coming sessions will be to keep conservative legislation rolling through the body.

His tenure in the upper chamber has left him well capable of getting that job done.

Big jobs

In January, Miller capped an eight-year rise in the Georgia Senate, when he was elected president pro tem by his Republican colleagues. That made him the most powerful senator in the chamber, second only to the lieutenant governor.

His new post came after years serving as a Senate floor leader for Gov. Nathan Deal, a job that can be difficult and uncomfortable based on the political fortunes of the sitting governor or the financial condition of the state. Before that, he was chairman of the Republican caucus in the Senate.

“The governor has to govern, and that often means doing things that are good government but bad politics — things that are tough to handle and tough to explain,” said Brian Robinson, a former spokesman for Deal and a current Republican campaign consultant.

A popular governor often raises the profile of his floor leaders, but it works the other way, too. A governor pushing unpopular legislation can drag allies down with him, especially the floor leaders who shepherd that legislation through the Georgia General Assembly.

There were many reasons to be unsure about which way the tide would go in Deal’s early days.

The economic future of the state was far from certain when Miller entered office in 2010. He was chosen as one of Deal’s Senate floor leaders in 2012, became the GOP caucus chairman in the Senate from 2013-2014 and was a floor leader again from 2015-2016.

In his time as one of Deal’s men in the Senate and as a caucus leader, the Great Recession hollowed out state revenue coffers and led to a bitter fight over the restructuring of the HOPE scholarship and the Georgia Lottery.

Even so, signing up as floor leader was less risky for Miller than it would have been for others. He represented Deal’s home district, the hub of one of the most conservative congressional districts in the nation. With local support strong at home, Miller was mostly inoculated from the heat lawmakers took for changes to scholarship funding and the lottery, according to Robinson.

Miller also won election only a few months after the national Affordable Care Act was signed into law. Often called Obamacare, the law cleared Congress at about the time the conservative tea party movement was hitting its stride.

The nationwide revival of limited governance personified in the tea party might have faded since 2010, but the lawmakers who rode the wave at the state level haven’t.

“I felt like government in general was less about personal responsibility and more about entitlement,” Miller said of his decision to run in 2011. “I believed and still believe in capitalism, personal responsibility and a strong work ethic.”

“I felt like my government was taking a lot of that away,” he added.

In later years, Miller’s tenure as floor leader was about how to respond to the state’s economic success while pushing relatively popular issues of criminal justice reform, education reform and the restructuring of the state’s transportation funding system.

He said some of his “best bills” have made changes to boater safety rules, responded to the opioid epidemic and required fingerprinting of child day care workers.

He’s been able to tout significant legislation from each session while staying almost free of personal scandal. Miller’s only public flap came in 2016, when an Atlanta TV news report claimed proof that Miller’s car dealership, Milton Martin Honda, was using state land to park cars without paying rent. Miller disputed the report, and in September the dealership bought the land for $725,100.

Friends in high places

Having that relationship with the Georgia governor and his office — one of the strongest constitutional governors in the country — “can pay off in terms of getting stuff in the budget” for a home district, Robinson said.

The pro tem position has been a launchpad for political success in the past. Both Deal and former Gov. Sonny Perdue served in the role before moving on to higher office. So, too, has being a floor leader for Georgia’s governor paid political dividends: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins served as a floor leader for Deal in the state House before winning election as Georgia’s 9th District congressman.

Miller hasn’t had to wait for the role to pay dividends: Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, both from Hall County, appeared at Miller’s re-election campaign launch held late last year in Gainesville.

“For years, I have been blessed to call Butch a good friend,” Deal said in a statement to The Times on Friday. “As my state senator and a former floor leader, he has been a loyal partner in legislative efforts to make Georgia the best possible state in which to live, work and learn. From education to criminal justice reform, he has been on the forefront of critical initiatives that address the challenges facing our state today.”

A business background, conservative principles, support from the state’s top officials: These are characteristics shared by many leaders of the Georgia GOP who come and go.

In addition, his rise in state politics has been credited in part to a precious gift in politics, observers said: People like Butch Miller.

Miller the man

“People are just drawn to him,” said Linda Hamrick, a 20-year lobbyist in Atlanta who now represents the Atlanta Regional Commission, transit interests and other groups in Atlanta.

A long-time salesman, the co-owner of Milton Martin Honda can work a room: He’s quick with a joke or story, easy to laugh and knows his district.

That smooth surface was hammered out through years of personal trial. Two of his three sons, Cole and Charlie, were born with a mitochondrial disease with symptoms similar to cerebral palsy. Carey Miller works as as attorney in the Atlanta area after graduating from the University of Georgia.

Cole suffered much more severely from the disease and died in 2001 at 14 years old.

“I was a broken man then,” Miller said in a 2009 interview with The Times about dealing with his son’s diagnosis. “I had this whole set of expectations that he would someday learn to walk, someday learn to talk ... but he would never have purposeful movement. To hold him in my arms as a baby and to know his total dependence was on me and my wife, it was humbling.”

Charlie relies on a wheelchair, but has finished his studies at Kennesaw State University and now lives independently in Decatur advocating for rights of the disabled. 

How hard is a campaign compared to that, or criticism from an opponent? Miller said the spines and snares of politics “roll off your back.”

So too does his faith help Miller keep a straight head in Atlanta. Like many young men, he didn’t much consider his faith after leaving home and finding a job — until he met Teresa Carey. Miller said his wife brought him back to his Christian faith and the Lakewood Baptist Church, where The Rev. Tom Smiley is now his pastor.

Smiley led the funeral for Cole, and he’s become a close friend of Gainesville’s senator, going on regular hunting trips — always for waterfowl and ground birds — and told The Times that Miller is “perhaps one of the most real and authentic people that I know.”

And there lies Miller’s success — the authentic car salesman, ready to sell Georgians a heavy dose of Gainesville conservatism.

Robinson, a handicapper of state elections who is now for hire helping people win them, said up front that the sky’s the limit for Miller and his political future.

“All elections are a popularity contest, and Butch is popular,” Robinson said.