At Young Harris College, a tale of three Democratic women

Contradictions abounded in one particular north Georgia valley last Thursday.

Ostensibly, the gathering on the leafy campus of Young Harris College was strictly non-political – the dedication of a new $41 million building and, within it, the Zell and Shirley Miller Library.

But the audience was stocked with multiple generations of Georgians who live and breathe electoral politics. Three of every five in the crowd could tell you the point spreads in the latest polls for U.S. Senate and governor. Four of five could tell you why the polls are wrong.

The top draws for the afternoon were both men. Zell Miller, the former governor and U.S. senator, was the star of the program. Former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, on the campaign trail for first time in 24 years, squired his daughter on the campus.

But this, too, was misdirection.

For if you looked closely, the event was actually a staged display of three important Democratic women: Shirley Miller, the better angel who sat on her husband’s shoulder throughout his political career; Cathy Cox, the president of Young Harris College and a 2006 candidate for governor; and Michelle Nunn, who seeks her father’s old seat in the Senate.

A line can be drawn from one woman to the next to the next.

Shirley Miller was her husband’s top adviser as he advanced from the state Senate to lieutenant governor to governor and, finally, the Senate.

In 1974, when her husband first ran for lieutenant governor, she was an equal partner. “We would make up schedules for her, just like we made up schedules for Zell. That was unheard of for spouses back then,” said Keith Mason, who served as Governor Miller’s chief of staff – and now heads up a Super PAC supporting Michelle Nunn.

Shirley Miller often followed behind her husband’s tornadoes in the state Capitol, patching up the damaged relationships. During the 16 years he ran the state Senate, Miller engaged in epic battles with House Speaker Tom Murphy that often lasted until the final minutes of a 40-day legislative session.

“The staff would say, ‘It’s time to bring in Shirley,’” her husband admitted. When the two men wouldn’t talk, Shirley Miller became the lieutenant governor’s emissary to Murphy.

“I loved that man,” Shirley Miller said. And she wasn’t talking about her husband.

The Millers are now in their 61st year of marriage. Shirley Miller is still employed as a diplomat. She was the one who looked into the crowd on Thursday and thanked former staffers “who made us look better than we really are.”

It is not a precisely legal arrangement, but the Millers – their house is only a short walk from the Young Harris campus – have adopted Cathy Cox, the school’s president for the last seven years.

Cox, in many ways, was a precursor to Michelle Nunn. “We had a good chat before she ran,” the college president said. She’s 56, nine years older than Nunn.

Cox was elected secretary of state in 1998. In 2002, as Gov. Roy Barnes and U.S. Sen. Max Cleland were ousted, Cox finished with more votes than any Democrat on the ticket – and so, many thought, would be the party’s nominee for governor.

Cox named a Republican as chairman of her campaign in a demonstration of bipartisanship – not unlike the message of conciliation that Michelle Nunn has relied on this year. But in 2006, the objections came from the Democratic side. Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor beat Cox in the primary, then lost to an easily re-elected Republican Sonny Perdue.

Cox is done with politics. Her 1,200 college students are more fun to deal with than state lawmakers. “And the overall IQ is so much higher,” she added. Perhaps this is the best place to note that Young Harris is a private college.

But clearly, she wishes Michelle Nunn well. “What I had to prove in both races was that a woman could raise money,” Cox said. She always matched her opponents.

Nunn has done even better in that department. “Michelle has blown that question out of the water forever,” Cox said.

Michelle Nunn was the quietest of the trio on Thursday, but then again, she had the most to lose. A short session with a television reporter focused on her relationship with her father.

“I have both sought his advice, and he’s also given it freely,” Michelle Nunn said, with Sam Nunn at her side.

The daughter faces two ceilings. The father can only help her with one. Sam Nunn made his TV debut this week, in a 30-second spot intended to reassure voters that a working Congress isn’t as radical as it sounds today. He has seen it happen.

As for that other ceiling, Shirley Miller might be the better advocate. “I always thought that it would be easier for a woman to win a statewide race for the Senate than for governor,” she said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.