WASHINGTON - Zell Miller had just started in the Senate when he was asked about signing up for retirement benefits. He declined, saying he wasn't going to be around the five years required to be eligible.
So it should have been no surprise last month when Mr. Miller announced that he would not run for re-election in 2004. In fact, Mr. Miller, who was appointed and then elected to fill the remaining four years of the late Sen. Paul Coverdell's term, is shocked that anyone thought he would run again.
"I haven't struggled with it at all," Mr. Miller said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I don't think there has been a time where I gave any serious consideration about running for re-election."
Although Mr. Miller insists that not running was his choice ever since he was appointed to replace Mr. Coverdell in the summer of 2000, he didn't share it with many of his closest political friends. Not even Georgia Democratic Chairman Calvin Smyre knew until Mr. Miller's office released a statement.
"You can tell signs of folks not really contemplating running again," freshman Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss said. "He wasn't raising money, wasn't doing the usual things people running would do."
Mr. Miller had intended to make the announcement Nov. 6, the day after the election, but he decided to hold off to avoid suspicion he was bailing on a Democratic Party that had just been hit with the surprising defeats of Gov. Roy Barnes and Sen. Max Cleland.
The maverick who has sided with President Bush on key legislation from tax cuts to homeland security has said he won't endorse any candidate in what figures to be a wide open 2004 contest to succeed him. Republican Rep. Johnny Isakson, who was appointed to lead the state Board of Education by Mr. Miller when he was still governor, is the only announced candidate, but several more are expected to join him.
Mr. Miller says he doesn't regret filming endorsement ads for a long list of 2002 Democratic incumbents - Mr. Barnes, Mr. Cleland, Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor among them - but he thinks the number became overkill.
"You could not turn on the television or the radio or really go to the mail safely without my mug being all over," he said. "It was too much. I was doing it for good friends, doing it for people who had supported me in the past, and I felt like I owed them that. But it got out of hand."
Just as Mr. Miller never came close to running for re-election, he says he never seriously considered switching parties - even though it was widely speculated when Vermont's Jim Jeffords' defection from the GOP handed Senate control to Democrats.
Although he expects always to consider himself a Democrat, Mr. Miller insists he won't let party loyalty dictate his positions on legislation.
"I'm not going to be a worker ant in an ant hill," he said. "I want to have some independence to say and do and vote the way I believe to be in the best interest of my state and my country, not some party."
One of his biggest shocks moving from the governor's mansion to Washington was the overwhelming power that lobbying groups hold in national government. As a senator who wasn't out raising money or seeking re-election, Mr. Miller was targeted less than most - but they still came knocking at his door.
"I want to have some independence to say and do and vote the way I believe to be in the best interest of my state and my country, not some party." -- Sen. Zell Miller, on party loyalty
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