Sunday’s column on Gov. Zell Miller’s role in resurrecting the political career of Johnny Isakson, who announced he would resign from the U.S. Senate on Dec. 31, has drawn some reaction from a pair of Miller veterans.
The column referred to the enmity between Miller and Linda Schrenko, the first Republican to be elected state school superintendent thusly:
Miller and Schrenko began mauling each other like a pair of territorial cougars. The situation was spinning out of control, and the man who had once dissed Johnny Isakson’s daddy needed help.
“He said, ‘Johnny, I fired the state Board of Education last night. I want to name you chairman and want you to take that thing over and clean that thing up down there,” Isakson remembered. “I can’t deal with Schrenko, and I think you can.’”
Steve Wrigley was Miller’s chief of staff in 1996, when this occurred, and is now chancellor for the University System of Georgia. He wrote:
“Your column contains one error. Miller and Shrenko did not maul one another. In fact, Gov Miller bent over backwards to work with her and was frustrated she and the board could not work together.
“Since she was constitutionally elected, his only option was to make changes in the school board, hence the decision to ask all of them to resign and to ask Georgia’s leading Republican, and policy-deep former legislator, to chair the board and pick the rest of the members.
“I was at breakfast with Bill Nigut when my beeper went off (yes, a beeper!) and the Governor summoned me to the office and said, ‘I want to announce the change today.’ So much for breakfast!”
We also got a call from Keith Mason, who was the campaign manager during Miller’s successful 1990 bid for governor. Isakson was the Republican nominee. We wrote:
It was a nasty affair. The nadir was an October debate at The Temple, the historic synagogue in Atlanta.
Miller stunned Isakson by bringing up a 1971 federal finding of racial discrimination against Northside Realty — a company then run by Isakson’s father. (The son had become president in 1979.) The attack drove the Republican close to tears. "You can take on anybody you want to, but don’t you try to take a low shot at my daddy,” Isakson replied.
Miller could be a ruthless soul.
Mason said that the exchange at The Temple deserves a broader context, and sent us a few lines of explanation:
It was not an attack on Johnny Isakson’s father but an attack on Johnny‘s business and legislative record as a part of a broader theme of Johnny avoiding personal responsibility for then unpopular actions or positions in that record.
Zell was not a “ruthless” politician but a very formidable , worthy adversary and a tough debater…
In that race, we needed to make sure that there was not any residual loss among moderate whites and African American supporters stemming from our defeat of Andy Young in the Democratic runoff.
“Andy had already endorsed Zell by then. And Atlanta had been selected as host for the 1996 Olympic Games that September through the leadership of Andy Young and Billy Payne, building upon the history of social progress and economic strength in our state.
“Johnny was trying to appeal to some of those voters by running away from some of his past conservative positions, such as his opposition to both the MLK holiday and building the Georgia Dome for the Falcons, by blaming his Cobb County constituents.
“These were not new charges by our campaign, but it was the first time we had crafted them as part of a pattern of avoiding personal responsibility.
“It was not an attack on Isakson’s father but obviously, came across that way given Johnny’s response and the media coverage.
“This charge from the Miller campaign against Isakson about Northside Realty was not unexpected. It had come up earlier in the year.
“In fact, I later learned from a key member of the Isakson campaign that they had anticipated it and had prepared to turn it into an unfair attack on Isakson’s father. And the way Johnny sincerely responded to the charge made it more of an effective response for the Isakson campaign at the time than any of us had imagined going into the debate.
“Another anecdote for you in the complex Miller-Isakson history is that in 1993, when Zell decided to run for reelection in ‘94, Isakson briefly announced that he would seek the GOP nomination again to oppose Zell. Johnny later dropped out and stayed in his newly approved state senate seat from Cobb County that had been reapportioned with the leadership of Democratic Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, Johnny ‘s longtime personal friend and fraternity brother from UGA -- and the approval of Governor Miller.