As Georgia's governor, Zell Miller successfully championed selling lottery tickets to fund scholarships in a Bible belt state and lost a fight to change the Confederate-themed state flag. As a U.S. senator, he enraged fellow Democrats with a primetime convention speech endorsing the re-election of President George W. Bush.
Time and again, Miller proved himself a stubbornly independent Southern Democrat during a political career that spanned four decades. Miller died Friday at age 86 in the same mountain home where he was raised by a widowed mother who built their house with rocks pulled from a stream.
“He had an independent streak that was governed by what he thought was right,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican who befriended Miller after a bitter political rivalry. “We need more people like him.”
Miller served two terms as Georgia's governor from 1991 through 1999. He was called out of retirement in 2000 at age 68 to fill the final four years of a U.S. Senate term. Miller had retreated from public view in the past year after his family revealed he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
Miller died at his home in Young Harris surrounded by three generations of family, grandson Bryan Miller told a news conference.
“We were able to spend the last 24 hours of his life with him and I can tell you that he died peacefully, comfortably surrounded by his family,” Bryan Miller said. “And that is the way he wanted it.”
He said funeral arrangements would be announced later.
“Georgia has lost a favorite son and a true statesman, and I've lost a dear friend,” Republican Gov. Nathan Deal said. “Zell's legacy is unequaled and his accomplishments in public service are innumerable. Without question, our state and our people are better off because of him.”
Bush also sent condolences from Texas, calling Miller “an example of service before self, country before party, principle before poll.”
As Georgia’s governor, he was considered one of the state's most successful and popular modern chief executives, compiling a progressive record in education and tax policy.
Miller’s signature accomplishment was the HOPE scholarship, which paid college tuition for Georgia students maintaining a “B” average and was funded by establishing a state lottery. Religious conservatives fought the effort, equating the lottery with gambling, but Miller won approval from the legislature and Georgia voters.
Today the Georgia Lottery says the scholarship has provided money to 1.8 million Georgia students. Forty-four states have some kind of lottery, including all Georgia’s Southern neighbors except Alabama and Mississippi, where religious conservatives have successfully blocked several attempts. Miller was near the vanguard of the idea in the South, where only Florida and Louisiana beat Georgia to the lottery game.
Near the end of Miller's second term, South Carolina Democrat Jim Hodges and Alabama Democrat Don Siegelman won 1998 races for governor primarily on education lottery proposals like Miller’s.
“The first visit that I made after being elected governor was to visit him,” said Hodges, who at age 41 viewed Miller as a mentor. “He was tough as nails.”
Miller also successfully pressed the Legislature to remove the sales tax from food. He had served a record 16 years as lieutenant governor before that.
After heading to Washington in 2000, Miller found himself increasingly critical of his own party for veering from mainstream values. Miller never changed parties, though many Democrats clamored for him to do so after he went to the podium at the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004 to deliver a stem-winder of a keynote speech for then-President George W. Bush.
Calling him a man with “a spine of tempered steel,” Miller hailed Bush as “the man I trust to protect my most precious possession: my family.”
Twelve years earlier to a different convention in the very same hall, Miller told national Democrats Bill Clinton was the man America needed.
“We can’t all be born rich and handsome and lucky, and that’s why we have a Democratic Party,” he said.
It was precisely the kind of unpredictable behavior that earned the ex-Marine the nickname “Zig-Zag Zell.” The moniker initially infuriated him but in later life he acknowledged there was some truth to it.
“I would be suspect of any politician who doesn’t change their mind on some issues,” he once said.
But of his battle with fellow Democrats, which won him national attention and made his carping book, “A National Party No More,” a national best-seller, Miller insisted it was the party that had changed — not him.
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.”