Originally created 07/30/00

Kent: The Zell factor; Coverdell's final strategy



THE APPOINTMENT by Gov. Roy Barnes of his predecessor and fellow Democrat to succeed the late Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., continues to get tongues wagging. Barnes reached out to the Democrats' "senior tour" to pick Zell Miller, who is already getting a Washington fund-raiser for the November special election hosted by the likes of liberal Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Barbara Boxer, D-Ca.

It will be quite a contrast to see Miller, with his distinctive north Georgia twang, speaking from the Senate floor and siding with fellow liberal Democrats on everything from judgeships to racial quotas. The former governor has a temper that might rival Sen. John McCain's - again quite a switch from the always-civil Coverdell.

Remember, too, that Miller was barely re-elected in 1994 for a second gubernatorial term. During his first term he employed fiery rhetoric (written by Clinton adviser James Carville) to attack the Confederate emblem on the state flag, and tried cajoling the majority-Democrat General Assembly to change the banner. Democratic leaders, pressured by the big public outcry, rejected the idea. But many white blue collar voters - which George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove calls the key swing bloc in this year's elections - remain angry over Miller's insensitivity toward Dixie's historical symbols.

On the other hand, Miller has big positives. He retains the loyalty of key black leaders and is popular for promising, and then selling to the voters who ratified it, a state lottery with proceeds going to specific educational programs. One of those programs is the HOPE scholarship, which helps many Georgia kids with free, lottery-paid tuition and books. One can almost see the consultants crafting a theme: "Zell's the one who gave you HOPE."

Miller's fund-raising prowess naturally poses problems for a Republican challenger. However, such a candidate can derive inspiration from none other than Coverdell's example. The under-funded and little-known Coverdell was 25 points down in the polls in 1992 when he began his challenge to U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler, D-Ga. He had the courage to wade through a GOP primary to obtain his party's nomination, and then admirably girded his loins for the fall slugfest with Fowler. Coverdell campaigned tenaciously, wore down an often visibly irritated incumbent and eked out a run-off win.

So here's the lesson to any candidate who challenges Miller: You'll never know unless you try - and that's what Paul Coverdell once told me.

Charlie's demographics

A well-funded Miller Senate candidacy will foster a big black voter turnout in Georgia's 10th U.S. Congressional District seat held by Republican Charlie Norwood. Two years ago, unknown and underfunded black Democrat Denise Freeman pulled over 40 percent in the district, which includes Columbia, Richmond, Lincoln, McDuffie and other area counties. This year she's running again - and will have more money. (Augusta attorney David Bell, the 1996 Democrat congressional nominee, no doubt wishes he was on the ballot with Miller this November for a shot at Norwood.)

The GOP congressman, following Rove's advice, will have to mobilize the blue collar and young voter who feel disconnected from both parties and politics in general. The search for white voters may seem hopelessly retro, but working class whites in Georgia (and in the 10th) are a vast constituency - if they are motivated to vote.

Lincoln Co. comeback

Walker Norman, in a Lazarus-like resurrection, was elected in the July 18 Democratic primary to an old and familiar job: Lincoln County Commission chairman.

The colorful "country boy" has a fascinating history. He was elected to the Lincolnton City Council at the tender age of 18. At age 25, he was elected to the commission chairmanship and served 16 years until his defeat in 1996.

Norman has shed some of his liberal views over the years, and emphasizes that his top priority during his new term will be on county economic development.

Short takes

A week before his unexpected July 18 death, Coverdell was closeted with U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., and Augusta congressman Norwood about who should run in 2002 against Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga. An aide said Coverdell told them "either one would be a fine senator" but only one should run.

A friend who voted for Georgia 114th House District Rep.-elect Sue Burmeister over incumbent Robin Williams called with this message:

"I admit to being amazed how the Williams camp has been very gracious in defeat while Burmeister has been vindictive in victory."