Paul Douglas Coverdell (January 20, 1939–July 19, 2000) was the director of the Peace Corps from 1989 until 1991. He was also a Republican U.S. Senator from Georgia. He was elected for the first time in 1992 and re-elected in 1998. He died while still in the Senate of a cerebral hemorrhage.
The late Republican senator is often described as a quiet, soft-spoken man but he left profound marks on the governments of both the state of Georgia and the nation in relatively brief period of time. Examples include: Coverdell Educational Savings accounts, which are used by millions of Americans to fund college educations for their children; the establishment of a strong Republican Party in Georgia; and the Peace Corps’ headquarters in Washington, DC are named after Coverdell, the man who helped to keep the program viable.
Like many other Georgians, Paul Coverdell came to Georgia to pursue business interests after being and educated in another part of the country. In his case, Coverdell was born in Iowa and educated in Missouri. After a brief stint in the Army, Coverdell settled in Atlanta with his wife, Nancy and began a career in insurance. By the late 1960s, his interests had turned to politics, but unlike most everyone else in the state at the time; Coverdell was a Republican. In 1970, Coverdell contested for a state Senate seat representing north Fulton County and won. He continued to serve in the state Senate for the next eighteen years and at the start of his career was one of only a handful of Republicans in the entire General Assembly. After four years, Coverdell became the Senate leader of the Republicans, a post that he held for fourteen years. As a minority leader of a small party in legislature, it became Coverdell’s style to work across party lines to accomplish his goals. He worked with rural Democrats on some issues and African-American Democrats on others and it is a testament to his style of politics that he was respected and liked by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
Coverdell demonstrated ambitions for higher office early in his political career with an unsuccessful run for the U.S. House in 1977. After this loss, and given the weak position of the GOP in the state, he turned his energies to working to develop a base for national Republican candidates and a viable statewide Republican Party organization. Coverdell served as state party chair for two years starting in 1985. In 1988, Coverdell became a leading supporter of George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign and worked relentlessly to see Bush carry the state’s critical 12 Electoral College votes. When Bush won, he named Coverdell to become Director of the Peace Corps.
At the time Coverdell assumed his responsibilities for the Peace Corps, it had seen its ranks and budget shrink and was perceived to be in organizational disarray. Some thought that Coverdell had been appointed to dismantle the volunteer agency. Nothing could have been further from the truth, as Coverdell worked to secure budget increases and began a recruitment campaign that would send more Americans throughout the world in humanitarian service. However, with encouragement from the White House, Covedell was persuaded to leave the agency to take on incumbent Democratic Senator Wyche Fowler in 1992.
Coverdell’s path to the nomination was not easy as he faced a strong primary challenge with a former U.S. Attorney. Bob Barr proved to be an aggressive campaigner and Coverdell was forced into a runoff with Barr, which Covedell won by less than 1,200 votes. The general election also proved to be difficult. On election night, 1992, it appeared that Coverdell had lost as he trailed Fowler by over 30,000 votes after the tallies were completed. However, this election was not over, as under then-Georgia law, a candidate was required to have won 50% plus one vote to be certified as elected. Due to the Libertarian candidate’s 3% showing in the election, a rare general election runoff was required under the law. So, Coverdell and Fowler were re-matched three weeks later with Coverdell winning by under 20,000 votes. Thus, Coverdell came to the U.S. Senate having had to win in four separate contests.
Coverdell received seats on the Foreign Relations, Agriculture, and Small Business Committees in the Senate. He worked against tax increases, to protect more federal lands in national parks, and for humanitarian concerns. Coverdell was active in writing policies toughening drug sentencing and enhancing law enforcement efforts. His crowning achievement in his Senate career came in the area of education. Coverdell drafted new legislation that allows individuals to make contributions to educational savings accounts, now known as Coverdell IRA Educational Savings Accounts.
In 1998, Coverdell running with the slogan "Coverdell Works" made history by becoming the first Republican from Georgia ever to be reelected to the U.S. Senate. In July 2000, he had returned to Georgia for a weekend of speaking engagements and constituency service and after complaining of a severe headache, Coverdell was taken to Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta. It was discovered that the 61 year old Senator was suffering from a hemmorrage in his brain and was rushed into surgery to attempt to repair the damage. Senator Coverdell never regained consciousness and died early on the evening of July 19, 2000. As is tradition in the Senate, his seat was draped in black and numerous colleagues from both parties made tributary speeches. A rare honor was bestowed on Senator Coverdell’s memory when his body lay instate in the rotunda of the state capitol. During this time, thousands passed by and paid their respects to this quiet man whose mark is deeply engrained upon his adopted state.
Coverdell was survived by his wife, Nancy. All of his papers are housed at the Ina Dillard Russell Library of Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, which also has a public policy institute named in his honor.
- U.S. Senate Biography
- Coverdell papers at GC&SU
- Paul Coverdell Biography of the U. S. Senator from Georgia
Wyche Fowler, Jr.
|U.S. Senator from Georgia|