Originally created 07/19/00

State, federal politicians honor senator



ATLANTA - U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, the only Georgia Republican to win re-election to the Senate during the 20th century, died Tuesday, one day after undergoing surgery to relieve pressure from a stroke.

Mr. Coverdell, 61, was pronounced dead at Piedmont Hospital at 6:10 p.m., according to a statement released by hospital officials less than an hour later. He had checked into Piedmont on Saturday night complaining of severe headaches.

"Senator Coverdell died as a result of a massive intracerebral hemorrhage (a type of stroke) in spite of extensive medical and surgical therapeutic efforts," the statement read.

"The hemorrhage resulted in uncontrollable edema (swelling) in the brain causing pressure on vital areas regulating consciousness, breathing, pulse and blood pressure."

The senator's wife, Nancy, other family members and the Senate chaplain were at his bedside when he died. The couple had no children.

Mr. Coverdell's Republican colleagues remembered him Tuesday night as a key force in reviving Georgia's moribund GOP from the time he was elected to the state Senate in 1970. He took over as Senate minority leader in 1974 at a time when the entire Republican caucus consisted of just four senators, doubling during part of his tenure as state GOP chairman.

"The very fact . . . that there are many more Republicans there today than there were when Paul got there is a tribute to what he did," said Georgia Republican Chairman Chuck Clay, who served with Mr. Coverdell in the Senate. "I have never been around somebody who was more dedicated to the job (and) balanced more things well."

Mr. Coverdell's close connections with the family of presumptive Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush date to the early 1980s. In 1989, the Texas governor's father, then-President Bush, appointed him director of the Peace Corps.

He went on to serve as the Senate's liaison to the younger Mr. Bush's presidential campaign.

"Paul Coverdell was one of the kindest and most decent men I met in my entire life," former President Bush said in a statement. "We shall miss him as we would miss our own son."

"Paul was a great friend of Laura (George W. Bush's wife) and me," the Texas governor added. "Paul's soft-spoken, hard-working ways will be sorely missed by all of us who knew him and loved him."

Mr. Bush's presumptive opponent this fall, Vice President Al Gore, opened a campaign rally in Kansas City on Tuesday night with a moment of silence for Mr. Coverdell.

"This is a partisan gathering, but we are all Americans," said Mr. Gore, who served alongside the senator in his constitutional role as president of the Senate. "When something like this happens, we join together in thinking of the family and thinking of our country and honoring the service of an individual who helped to make our constitution work and served in a distinguished way."

Mr. Coverdell left the Peace Corps to challenge incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler Jr. for the U.S. Senate in 1992. Although he didn't raise as much money, he squeaked out a narrow victory in a runoff when the presence of a Libertarian Party candidate prevented either major-party candidate from winning a majority of the general-election vote.

Until Mr. Coverdell came along, no one had won re-election to that Senate seat since Democrat Herman Talmadge in 1974. Mr. Coverdell ended that string in 1998 when he soundly defeated multimillionaire cookie magnate Michael Coles.

In the Senate, Mr. Coverdell quickly gained a reputation as a hard worker who would do the kinds of behind-the-scenes tasks that didn't win glory but helped build his party. It was because of his organizational skills that he rose to become secretary of the Republican Conference, the fourth-highest Senate GOP leadership position, and was tapped to serve as chairman of the Platform Committee during the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego.

"He served this body with great distinction, with great humor," Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., said on the Senate floor shortly after receiving word of Mr. Coverdell's death. "He will truly be missed by not just Georgians, but by all Americans."

Mr. Coverdell served on the Agriculture, Foreign Relations, Finance and Small Business committees, and became the Senate Republicans' point man on education.

He worked closely with Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., to pass bipartisan legislation extending education savings accounts to allow tax-free withdrawals for school expenses from kindergarten through high school. But President Clinton vetoed the bill in 1998 and forced Republicans to pull it from a year-end budget bill in 1997, arguing that it would hurt public schools and benefit only wealthy families.

Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who served with Mr. Coverdell in the state Senate for 15 years, said his willingness to reach out to Democrats made him an effective consensus-builder.

"Whether you're a Democrat or Republican, that's the recipe you have to put together and be successful, and Paul was good at that," Mr. Barnes said.

Mr. Barnes said he will order state flags to be flown at half staff in honor of Mr. Coverdell.

The option of appointing a successor until November now falls to Mr. Barnes, a Democrat, and he is expected to exercise that right. But he said he has not begun considering possible appointees.

"It would be inappropriate even to begin to discuss that," he said.

Democratic Party sources said a handful of names already are circulating. Among those mentioned as possible appointees: Secretary of State Cathy Cox; Great American Cookie Co. co-founder Mr. Coles; Attorney General Thurbert Baker; Rep. Sanford Bishop; state Sen. Charles Walker of Augusta; and state Rep. Larry Walker of Perry.

Mr. Barnes' appointee would serve until a special election in November that would coincide with the general election.

According to the secretary of state's office, the election would be nonpartisan. The top vote-getter would need 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff with the second-place finisher.

Associated Press reports were used in this article.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.