The long tradition of the descendants of famous Georgia politicians entering the family business continued this week when the grandson of the late governor and senator Zell Miller announced his candidacy for lieutenant governor. Bryan Miller, who has been running the Zell Miller Foundation in the gruff old mountaineer’s name, aspires to the job Zell held for 16 long years (from 1975 to 1991, when he won his first term as governor). He is one of a growing field of candidates in both parties, thanks to the decision of incumbent Republican Geoff Duncan to give up on any reelection bid. (Duncan became a leper in his party for supporting the certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 win in Georgia and then expressing less than great enthusiasm for the 2021 GOP voter-suppression law.)
Like Zell Miller himself, Bryan Miller is a Democrat who seems to find it easy to support Republicans now and then: His biggest previous political gig was as campaign manager in 2012 for Doug Collins, the right-wing congressman who became a Donald Trump favorite and ran unsuccessfully for the Senate last year. But now he calls himself a “Joe Biden Democrat.” If his name was Zell Miller III, he would have probably have inherited his granddad’s nickname of “Zig Zag Zell.”
Miller has to hope he will do better than several other Democratic scions who have run statewide lately. In 2020 there was Matt Lieberman (son of Joe), who ran in the special U.S. Senate election and despite an early start and some decent fund-raising finished a poor fifth, far behind fellow Democrat and ultimate winner Raphael Warnock. In 2014 there were two very famous last names on the ballot: Michelle Nunn, a veteran nonprofit executive and one of nicest people you’d ever meet, ran for her dad Sam’s old Senate seat. Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter’s grandson Jason, who had a more conventional background in the state legislature, ran for governor. But 2014 was a bad year for Democrats everywhere, and Nunn and Carter lost by very similar seven-point margins.
Nunn’s vanquisher was another pol with a familiar name: business executive David Perdue, cousin of former governor (and future Trump administration Secretary of Agriculture) Sonny Perdue. David Perdue lost to Democrat Jon Ossoff in one of those pivotal January 2021 Georgia Senate runoffs.
To find a successful statewide Democratic chip-off-the-old-block in Georgia politics, you have to go all the way back to the Talmadges, Eugene and Herman. “Ol’ Gene” was a intensely conservative and racist rural demagogue who fought FDR and anything approaching liberalism in Georgia. He won four terms as governor, twice winning on the power of Georgia’s unique county unit system, a sort of state-level electoral vote replica which gave disproportionate power to rural areas. But after his final willing gubernatorial run in 1946, managed by his son and heir Herman, Ol’ Gene died before the inauguration, which produced an intensely embarrassing constitutional crisis in which Herman (who technically finished second in the general election thanks to some dubious write-in votes from Talmadge controlled counties where concerns about Gene’s heath were strong), Lieutenant Governor M.E. Thompson and outgoing governor Ellis Arnall all claimed the governorship and tried to gain physical control of the state Capitol. This “three governors” controversy was ended by a court order installing Thompson as governor, but Herman won a triumphant comeback in 1948, was reelected to a four-year term in 1950, and then won the Senate seat he held until 1980, when after a financial scandal and highly publicized treatments for alcoholism he lost by an eyelash to Republican Mack Mattingly.
Herman’s last hurrah was his 1980 Democratic primary runoff win over Zell Miller, who had overcome a segregationist background to become a favorite of Georgia’s liberals and Black voters — one of his famous zigs and zags. Miller would not lose another race until he retired 24 years later. His grandson presumably will try to emulate the sunnier and more successful side of his political legacy.