By JIMMY ESPY
Tributes to Zell Miller came in from all over the country this weekend as word spread that the former Georgia governor and U.S. senator had passed away on Friday at age 86 at his home in Young Harris.
None of those tributes were more sincere or heartfelt than those of longtime Chattooga County Sheriff Gary McConnell.
“The thing I will always remember the most is our friendship,” said McConnell, who was a young sheriff in the mid-1960s when he first met Miller, a candidate for lieutenant governor. “I’m big on people not forgetting where they came from and Zell never forgot that. He was always the same person who grew up in the mountains of Northeast Georgia.”
McConnell and Miller forged a longstanding friendship as well as a strong professional relationship.
Miller was teaching political science and history at Young Harris College in the late 1950s when he entered politics. He served as a mayor and later in the Georgia General Assembly. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1974 and served four terms before running against Herman Talmadge for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Miller was elected governor 1990.
McConnell was one of Miller’s most dedicated supporters through those sometimes turbulent political campaigns.
“I travelled with him and campaigned for him,” said McConnell. The young sheriff was a valuable ally in part because McConnell had developed many contacts across through state while serving as president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association and the Georgia County Officers’ Association.
McConnell said that the idea of working for Miller was never discussed during the 1990 gubernatorial campaign.
“He didn’t mention it and neither did I,” said McConnell. “The fact is I didn’t know if I wanted to leave here and he never brought the subject up.”
But when the election was over Miller asked McConnell to join his administration.
“I became his director of emergency management and homeland security,” said McConnell.
It was a partnership that lasted eight years and produced a lifetime of memories for McConnell.
“We travelled the state together,” McConnell recalled. “Whether it was a flood, or snowstorm or tornado, Zell went with me to see what needed to be done, to see what we could get done.”
The most memorable of those times came in the summer of 1994 when much of South Georgia was hammered by massive flooding. McConnell said he and the governor travelled the flooded areas for 17 straight days by helicopter.
“We flew into every flooded county by helicopter and met with local officials,” he said. “We asked them to tell us five things we could do for them. We couldn’t do everything, but if they gave us five things they needed, we tried to make it happen.”
McConnell recalled a staff meeting at the governor’s mansion during the 1994 flood.
“I was sitting off to the side but Gov. Miller told me he wanted me to sit on his right hand side,” said McConnell. “He then told everyone in the room that if they had any questions about the flood, they needed to ‘talk to Gary.’ He made it clear that I was in charge and that there would be no second guessing.”
McConnell said Miller remained “very cool, very calm” during those trying times.
Two other major events that highlighted his years with Miller were the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 and the blizzard of 1993, which left millions of Georgians without power for weeks.
“During those years we talked almost every day,” McConnell said. “Anytime something like a plane crash or a tornado happened anywhere in the state I was the one who called him at 2 a.m. to tell him what was happening. When he left the governor’s office, he said that one thing he wouldn’t miss was those ‘phone calls from Gary.’”
Miller left office in 1999. McConnell stayed on in his job through four more years under Gov. Roy Barnes. He was eventually let go by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.
However, Miller wasn’t done with serving in public office.
In 2000, he was asked by Gov. Barnes to complete the term of Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell who had died unexpectedly.
Though a lifelong Democrat, Miller was also very conservative. He supported Republican President George W. Bush on many issues and was outspoken about what he thought was the leftward drift of the Democratic Party.
Those criticisms earned him the enmity of many former supporters.
McConnell said two things marked Miller’s time in the U.S. Senate.
“First, he was very conservative, probably more conservative than a lot of Republicans of that time,” he said. “Second, he was very unhappy in the Senate. He had been used to being able to get things done, not just make suggestions.”
Miller remained a Democrat, though often an embattled one.
“I remember Zell said something about the Democratic Party being like an old house you were raised in,” said McConnell. “The roof might leak, the windows might be broken and there may be people living in the basement that you don’t know, but it’s still your home.”
McConnell said Miller should be remembered for “his legacy” — the HOPE scholarship, which has helped millions of kids attend college. He should also be remembered for the hundreds of things the state did to help Georgians after the big natural disasters like the 1994 floods.
On a more personal level, McConnell found a single word that best described his friend of more than four decades.
“Genuine,” said McConnell. “That’s what he was. Zell came up very tough in Northeast Georgia, but he loved that place. You could hear it when he talked about it. He had a genuine love for Georgia and a genuine desire to help people.”
By JIMMY ESPY