Georgia's Centrist of Attention
Gov. Zell Miller Is Called a Model for Democrats
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 1998; Page A1 YOUNG HARRIS, Ga. Gov. Zell Miller (D) can't finish a bite of his burger here at Maryann's Restaurant, off Zell Miller Mountain Highway, without someone walking up and thanking him for helping send a daughter, a nephew or a cousin to college and pleading for him to run for some new office, any office.
As Miller's second term draws to a close, he will leave office as perhaps the most popular governor in the country, with a stratospheric job approval rating of 85 percent. Many political analysts point to Miller's second-term political revival as a parable for how Democrats can rebuild their fractured base in the South.
Stay to the middle. Focus on bread-and-butter issues, such as education and the economy. Avoid divisive social issues, such as school prayer and abortion. It was a social issue Miller advocating the removal of the Confederate symbol from the Georgia flag that nearly got him run out of office in 1994. He got the idea: lurch back to the middle.
Between bites at lunch, Miller explained it this way: "I believe in diversity. I have appointed more minorities to judgeships than anyone else before me. I have funded the arts more than any other governor. Those things are important to me, but I haven't made them central issues. What I have focused on are things like, how are you going to send your child to college?"
If Democrats are to reverse the party's slide and make gains in the South, Miller's model should be instructive, said political analysts around the country.
Near the end of his first term and in his second term, Miller "made sure no Republican got to the right of him," said one former staff member, who now works in Washington. Miller pushed welfare reform, boot camps for juvenile offenders and a measure that would require life sentences for people convicted of two violent felonies, exceeding the controversial three-strikes-you're-out provisions of many states.
Yet despite advocating conservative measures, he did not abandon more liberal issues, such as affirmative action.
It also hasn't hurt Miller that the state's economy is booming.
"I call him a 'Republicrat,' " said Stan Raymond, a businessman, registered Independent and Miller supporter who lives near Miller's home town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia. "He's never been a liberal, as far as the economy is concerned. He's focused on education. I really think he's turned this state around."
This year, two southern Democratic gubernatorial nominees are making strong, if unexpected, showings, running largely on Miller's education platform. In South Carolina, Democratic candidate Jim Hodges has sparked a competitive race against Gov. David M. Beasley (R) in one of the most Republican states in the South. In Alabama, the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman, has built a double-digit lead over Gov. Fob James Jr. (R).
The platforms of Hodges and Siegelman feature plans to use lotteries to finance education improvements. In his first term, Miller dreamed up the idea of creating a state lottery for education. The idea was controversial and lost him support among some conservatives from both parties, but voters passed it in a referendum after Miller pushed enabling legislation that outlined how the money would be spent.
Today, 337,000 students have attended public and private universities in the state on the HOPE Scholarships, a lottery-financed program Miller persuaded voters to approve in the early 1990s. About 98 percent of in-state students at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech entered on the scholarship. And 61,000 4-year-olds are attending the country's only state-paid pre-kindergarten program this year.
"He has been a very good governor and great on education," said Tom Yow, president of the private Young Harris College, where 92 percent of the freshmen are attending on the HOPE Scholarship. "And the education of your children is one of those things that cuts across political and partisan lines."
Miller said the scholarship has proven popular among Georgians because it is neither means-tested nor race-based. Students who graduate from high school with a B average and maintain that average through college keep the scholarship.
With popular and recognizable Democrats in short supply and in much demand in Georgia and the South in general there was much pressure on Miller to prolong his political career. But not even a pleading call early this year from President Clinton a friend since the early 1980s could persuade him to run for Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell's seat this year.
After more than three decades in politics, Miller has decided to hang it up and return to his tiny home town, where most of his family still resides. Miller, 67, was raised in this speck-on-the-map town two hours north of Atlanta by a very determined single mother. (His father died two weeks after he was born.)
And since "I know I only have so much time left," Miller said, he would rather spend it here than in Washington, slugging away in the increasingly partisan Congress.
"Governor Miller has done more for education than any governor this state has ever had," said resident Johnny Cochran, wandering over to the governor's table as he polished off his hamburger. Cochran said he has two daughters at the University of Georgia on tuition-free HOPE Scholarships.
That Miller an ex-Marine who sports pointy-toed cowboy boots with his suits would find such popularity in the South is particularly striking.
For the past decade, Democrats have been losing governorships all over the South. The South was the only region where Republicans had a net gain of seats in state legislatures in the last election. While Georgia hasn't elected a Republican governor since Reconstruction, the race between GOP candidate Guy Millner and Democrat Roy Barnes is considered a toss-up.
In the eight years Miller has been in office, the state has seen stark political changes that have included the near-extinction of the white male Democrat in congressional races.
In 1990, nine of the state's 10 House members were Democrats, and eight were white men. Today, eight of the 11 House members are Republicans and all are white men. The three Democrats are black, two men and one woman. (The delegation was expanded by one seat after the 1990 Census.)
Miller himself barely survived the 1994 election, defeating Millner by less than 2 percent of the vote. His popularity puts him in a league with Georgia's other favorite sons, Jimmy Carter and former senator Sam Nunn, and many political analysts believe that he would have been a lock to beat Coverdell.
"I haven't seen numbers higher than that," Jennifer E. Duffy, an editor of the Cook Political Report, said of Miller's job approval rating. "In the 80s, that's pretty extraordinary."
Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who is working for Coverdell this year and worked for Millner in 1994 when he unsuccessfully challenged Miller for governor, said, "Zell Miller is one of the very few politicians I've ever polled who polls as well with Republicans as he does with Democrats. He wants to be the governor for all the people, not just Democrats. He has done things many Republican governors admire."
Indeed. Millner invoked his old adversary's name in an early campaign commercial this year. And it wasn't to characterize him as a bleeding-heart liberal, which he did in 1994. Instead, it suggested that Millner would build on Miller's education policies, which have been "home runs" for Georgia.
But Miller wasn't always so popular. His first term was very much like Clinton's. Voters perceived him as too liberal, and his position on the Confederate flag nailed down that perception. After barely surviving politically in 1994, he moved to the middle, alienating some voters.
A few years ago, some liberals accused him of pandering to crime paranoia with his welfare reform and two-strikes crime proposals. Worse, some of the critics said, Miller displayed an obstinate, combative attitude toward those who tried to lobby against his measures.
"He's an interesting fellow, no doubt about it," said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery Jr., the civil rights leader who has butted heads with Miller on those issues. "He's kind of an enigma. He's a strong personality and has done some good solid things as governor. But I think occasionally he's shown some insensitivity."
Lowery acknowledged that while he opposed the welfare and crime measures, many, if not most, of the state's blacks supported Miller's initiatives. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who has been a friend since 1977, when Miller supported his failed bid for the Democratic House nomination against Wyche Fowler, said Miller is among the last of a breed.
"To a significant degree, he is a modern-day populist," said Lewis, who ran again and won in 1986. "He has the ability to build a strong and broad coalition of black and white voters, people from urban communities, like greater Atlanta, but also small towns and rural areas of Georgia in the north and the south."
Miller's supporters said the seeds for his political outlook were sown in the 1980s, when he and Clinton bonded over their shared concern that the party had to move back to the middle. In 1991, when Clinton was running for president, Miller introduced him to his consultants, Paul Begala and James Carville.
"He and Clinton are very close, and both were remarkably successful 'New Democrat' southern governors," Begala said. "They have defined a third way between people who think government can solve all our problems and those who believe government causes all of our problems."
Miller said his political philosophy is built on the premise that the vast majority of people are neither liberal nor conservative, but somewhere in the middle. For instance, most people support abortion rights, but most also believe in certain restrictions, such as banning late-term abortions, he said. Most people dislike the idea of welfare, but most also believe there should be some sort of safety net and assistance for those who are trying to come off it.
Miller, who gave a rousing introduction of Clinton in his keynote speech at the 1992 Democratic convention, said he believes Clinton has been a good president, but that he is very disappointed in his behavior with Monica S. Lewinsky. "Watching this has been like a long great fever that I can't shake," he said, in his Appalachian mountain twang. "I deplore what he has done, but I'm not going to cut and run on a friend."
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