One of the leading conservative voices in Georgia politics has died at 86 after a battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Zell Miller was among the last of the true “Blue Dog Democrats,” who stood for conservative values despite his party affiliation. As the Democratic party veered further to the left, Miller often voted with Republicans while in the Senate, and even delivered the keynote address at a Republican National Convention.
Former Sen. Zell Miller, a lifelong Democrat and the father of a lottery-funded scholarship while serving as Georgia’s governor, died Friday at age 86.
Mr. Miller died at his home in north Georgia, said Lori Geary, a spokeswoman for the Miller Institute Foundation. Bryan Miller, Mr. Miller’s grandson, said in a statement the former senator and governor “passed away peacefully surrounded by his family.” Mr. Miller’s family revealed last year that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“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.”
An enduring presence in Georgia politics for four decades, Mr. Miller served two terms as Georgia’s governor, from 1991 through 1999, and compiled a progressive record in education and tax policy.
His signature accomplishment was the HOPE scholarship, which was funded through the establishment of a state lottery and paid college tuition to Georgia students who maintained a “B” average.
The program was a rousing success and its popularity aided him in his 1994 re-election campaign, despite an earlier statement that he would only serve one term and the firestorm he ignited in 1993 with an unsuccessful attempt to remove the fighting banner of the Confederacy from the state flag.
With Atlanta due to host the summer Olympics in 1996, Mr. Miller was under pressure from many in the business community to remove a symbol that many associated with segregation.
In his State of the State address, Mr. Miller told lawmakers it was time to rip the old Confederate symbol from the state flag, arguing that it was added in 1956 “to identify Georgia with the dark side of the Confederacy—the desire to deprive some Americans of the equal rights that are the birthright of all.”
But he couldn’t muster the votes and ultimately abandoned the effort.
Miller would later serve in Washington as a Senator, where he continued to stand for conservative values and reject the DEemocratic party’s slide into radical liberalism.
After leaving office, Mr. Miller was called out of retirement to fill Georgia’s Senate seat after the 2000 death of Paul Coverdell. Mr. Miller then won a November 2000 special election to remain in the seat for the rest of Mr. Coverdell’s term.
Once in Washington, Mr. Miller found himself increasingly critical of his own party for veering from mainstream values and often voted with Republicans.
Mr. Miller never changed parties, though many Democrats clamored for him to do so after he delivered a keynote speech for then-President George W. Bush at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York.
Twelve years earlier, at the Democratic National Convention in the very same hall, Mr. Miller said Bill Clinton was the man America needed.
It was precisely the kind of unpredictable behavior that earned the independent-minded ex-Marine the nickname “Zig-Zag Zell.” The moniker initially infuriated him but in later life he acknowledged there was some truth to it.