Zell Miller.

Zell Miller, a former Georgia governor and U.S. senator, died early March 23 at the age of 86. Local leaders remember him for his advocacy of public education and praise his dedication to public service.

“Zell Miller’s passing marks a sad day in Georgia. His record shows he always put Georgia and the country’s interests above loyalty to party, a characteristic all of us in political life should emulate,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul in a statement.

Miller, a conservative Democrat, served as Georgia governor from 1991 to 1999, and as one of Georgia’s U.S. senators from 2000 to 2005. Before being elected as governor, he served as lieutenant governor from 1975 to 1991.

“Former Governor Zell Miller leaves behind a state infinitely better for his leadership. He was a complicated and brilliant public servant who opened the doors of opportunity for millions of Georgians,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in a statement.

Miller’s landmark initiative is the HOPE Scholarship, which funds the majority of tuition to public universities for students who maintain good grades. The scholarship is funded by state lottery revenue.

“Zell Miller lived a life filled with courage and the resolve to lead,” U.S. Rep. Karen Handel said. “All of us are better off for his life, and his service. This is especially true for the 1.8 million Georgians – and counting – that have [benefited] from higher education because of his HOPE scholarship program,” said Handel, who represents Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs.

Bottoms said that although Miller is best known for creating the HOPE Scholarship, she remembers for more than half of his judicial appointments being African American, including 11 African-American women.

“Although best known for the HOPE Scholarship, I remember and applaud Zell Miller today for his work to change the face of Georgia’s judiciary. His vision for a better Georgia will be sorely missed,” Bottoms said.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst recalled in a brief interview meeting Miller in 1998 and later speaking to Miller’s political science class at the University of Georgia.

“Obviously he was an inspiration and true leader for the entire state of Georgia throughout his career,” Ernst said. “This is a sad day. He was a good man.”

Ernst worked on Gov. Roy Barnes’ campaign to become governor in 1998 and said he remembered Miller coming into the small hotel room to congratulate Barnes after he won. Barnes had previously run unsuccessfully for governor in 1990, losing to then-Lt. Gov. Miller in the Democratic primary.

“I was chatting with him and will always remember that moment,” he said.

Miller later invited Ernst, who became an assistant to Barnes, to speak to his political science class at UGA.

“He was always gracious and very warm with me,” Ernst said. “He was a great man who was able to accomplish a whole lot. He took on tough fights, like the lottery, and how revolutionary that was for Georgia.”

Buckhead Coalition President and former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell said he enjoyed a friendship with Miller and frequently ran into him at the now-defunct Oxford Books store on Pharr Road in Buckhead.

“He was a very, very smart and successful politician,” he said. “He was a public servant throughout his body.”

Miller is known for being a conservative Democrat who frequently sided with Republicans, especially in the later half of his political career. Although he never officially switched parties, Massell said it was “pretty obvious” that he had.

“I’m disappointed that he would change parties like he did midstream,” Massell, a Democrat, said.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who lost the 1990 gubernatorial election to Miller, praised his “patriotism and loyalty” in a statement.

“With the passing of Zell Miller, Georgia has lost its finest public servant, and I have lost a great friend. I do not know of anyone who impacted the lives of Georgians more than Zell. His Marine Corps values of patriotism and loyalty guided his career in service to his state and his country,” Isakson said.

U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, who represents parts of Buckhead and Sandy Springs, thanked Miller for his public service in a statement.

“Zell Miller, former Governor and U.S. Senator, served our state and nation with integrity. We thank him and his family for a lifetime of service. Our prayers are with you,” Loudermilk said.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue said in a statement that Miller’s legacy will live on through the students that have been able to attend college because they received funds from the HOPE Scholarship.

“Zell Miller touched the lives of many as a teacher, Marine, public servant, and friend. Throughout his career, Zell was a strong advocate for the value of a public education and made it his mission to ensure Georgia students had the opportunity to pursue a college degree,” Perdue said. His legacy will live on through them.”

– Dyana Bagby and John Ruch contributed