WASHINGTON – Zell Miller had just entered 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.
Thus, it should have been no surprise last month when Miller announced he would not run for re-election in 2004. In fact, Miller, who was appointed and then elected to fill the remaining four years of the late Sen. Paul Coverdell's term, is shocked anyone thought he would run again.
"I haven't struggled with it at all," Miller, 70, said in a recent 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 Miller insists that was his choice ever since he was appointed to replace Coverdell in the summer of 2000, he didn't share it with many of his closest political friends. Georgia Democratic Chairman Calvin Smyre didn't know until Miller's office released a statement.
"You can tell signs of folks not really contemplating running again," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. "[Miller] wasn't raising money, wasn't doing the usual things people running would do."
Miller had intended to make the announcement Nov. 6, the day after the election. He decided, however, to hold off to avoid suspicion he was fleeing a Democratic Party hit with the surprising re-election defeats of Gov. Roy Barnes and Sen. Max Cleland.
Miller, a maverick who has sided with President Bush on key legislation from tax cuts to homeland security, says 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 by then-Gov. Miller to lead the state Board of Education, is the only announced candidate. Several more — possibly including other House members — are expected to join him.
"I don't need to be out there telling the people of Georgia, pulling on their sleeve, ahold of their britches leg like a dog, saying, 'Here's what you ought to do,'" Miller said.
Just as he ruled out seeking re-election, Miller said he never seriously considered switching parties — even though it was widely speculated after Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' defection from the GOP led to Democratic control of the Senate last year.
Although he'll always consider himself a Democrat, Miller said 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 in Atlanta to Washington was the overwhelming power that lobbying groups hold in national government. As a senator who wasn't out raising money for re-election, Miller was targeted less than most — but they still came knocking at his door.
"Up here, it's 'What do the groups think about it?'" Miller said. "The groups and the consultants supply the oxygen in this town, and it's almost as if they can cut it off and suffocate us."
While he sees flaws in the process, which he said "sometimes borders on dysfunctional," he ranks many of fellow senators as among the smartest people he has ever met and treasures the opportunity to work alongside them.
Miller promises he won't be a lame duck in the final two years of his term; with their Senate majority still razor-thin, Republicans will likely continue to call on him and other conservative Democrats to secure key victories.
Before retiring, he and his wife, Shirley, intend to take a trip across Georgia to see communities they haven't visited since his first campaign for lieutenant governor in 1974.
"I want to have the opportunity to tell these folks that I really do thank them for giving me this wonderful experience I've had," he said.