Zell Miller, a Democrat and former governor and senator of Georgia who helped create the state’s HOPE scholarship and spent the final years of his life as a loud advocate for Republicans, died Friday at the age of 86.
Miller, who grew up in the small community of Young Harris in rural northeast Georgia, became mayor in 1959 at the age of 27 after a stint in the Marines. Miller, who was also working as a professor at Young Harris College, won a seat in the state Senate the next year as a Democrat. He notably did oppose a school segregation bill from the floor of the chamber during his first year in office, but he was far from a supporter of civil rights at that early point in his career.
Miller challenged six-term Rep. Phillip Landrum in the primary in 1964 for a seat in the northeast corner of the state. While Landrum was a staunch segregationist, Miller argued during that campaign that President Lyndon Johnson was “a Southerner who sold his birthright for a mess of dark pottage,” comments he would later disavow. Miller lost 52-43, and he lost his 1966 rematch to Landrum 54-40.
Miller soon landed on his feet and rose to become chief of staff to Gov. Lester Maddox. While the governor was a notorious segregationist, observers credited Miller for being a moderating influence on him. Jimmy Carter, Maddox’s successor and longtime rival, also appointed Miller to the state Pardons and Paroles board. Miller ran for lieutenant governor in 1974 and defeated, among many others, his future Senate colleague Max Cleland in the primary. Miller would go on to spend 16 years in the office, the longest anyone ever held that post.
However, Miller tried to leave it in 1980 when he challenged four-term Sen. Herman Talmadge in the primary. Talmadge, a longtime Georgia institution and the chair of the powerful Agriculture Committee, was facing a number of ethics problems (he had been denounced by the Senate for “gross neglect of his duty”), he had also gone through a messy divorce, and there were reports of widespread drinking. Polls initially showed Talmadge trailing Miller by as much as 17 points, and the incumbent only took 42 percent of the vote to Miller’s 24 in the first round. Miller, who had the support of prominent black politicians as well as organized labor, argued the incumbent was dishonest and an embarrassment.
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