By Peter Szekely
Zell Miller, a two-term Georgia governor and Democrat who breached party lines in 2004 to support George W. Bush’s presidential re-election bid, died on Friday at 86, his family said.
The former politician had been treated for Parkinson’s disease before he died at his family home in Young Harris, Georgia, grandson Bryan Miller said in a statement.
“As his grandson, I learned more from Zell Miller both professionally and personally than from anyone else I have encountered,” said Bryan Miller, who heads the Atlanta-based Miller Institute Foundation.
A conservative Democrat, Miller was active in Georgia public life for decades before and during the regional partisan realignment that turned the once-Democratic South into today’s red-state Republican bloc.
An early backer of the presidential bid of fellow southern governor Bill Clinton, Miller gave the keynote address at the 1992 Democratic National Convention that contrasted the party’s working class base with the wellborn upbringing of Republican President George H.W. Bush.
“We can’t all be born rich and handsome and lucky,” Miller, then in his first term as governor, told fellow delegates at New York’s Madison Square Garden. “And that’s why we have a Democratic Party.”
Twelve years later, amid shifting political winds accelerated by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Miller was at the same podium. But this time he was a Democratic U.S. senator addressing the Republican National Convention in support of George W. Bush over his own party’s presidential nominee, John Kerry, earning the ire of many Democrats.
Miller, an educator by profession, created the HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) Scholarship and Georgia’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program as governor.
“Zell’s legacy is unequaled and his accomplishments in public service are innumerable,” said Republican Nathan Deal, the state’s current governor.
Born on Feb. 24, 1932, Miller served in the U.S. Marine Corps before getting a master’s degree in history from the University of Georgia and going to work as an educator.
He soon embarked on a 46-year career in public life that included serving as mayor of Young Harris, Georgia, a state senator, a record 16-year stretch as lieutenant governor, two terms as governor and an appointed partial term as U.S. senator from 2000 to 2005.
Among Zell’s survivors are his wife Shirley Carver Miller, to whom he was married for 64 years.