Paul Coverdell was the first Republican since Reconstruction to be reelected to the U.S. Senate from Georgia. Elected to the Senate in 1992, he made a successful bid for a second term in 1998 but died unexpectedly only a year and a half later. A key figure in the establishment of a strong Republican Party in Georgia, Coverdell also served as the director of the Peace Corps from 1989 to 1991. The Peace Corps headquarters building in Washington, D.C., is named after him.
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 20, 1939, Coverdell moved to Atlanta as a teenager. After graduating from the University of Missouri in 1961, then serving a brief stint in the army, he settled in Atlanta with his wife, Nancy, and began a career in insurance. By the late 1960s his interests had turned to politics. In 1970 he ran for a state senate seat representing north Fulton County and won, becoming one of only a handful of Republicans in the Georgia legislature. He served in the state senate for the next eighteen years. After four years Coverdell became the leader of the senate Republicans, a post that he held until he left the legislature. Working with African American and rural white Democrats, he was generally known for his bipartisan style of politics.
Coverdell demonstrated ambitions for higher office early in his political career with an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Congress in 1977. After this loss, and given the weak position of the Republican Party in the state, he turned his energies to developing a base for national Republican candidates and a viable statewide Republican Party organization. Coverdell served as state party chair from 1985 to 1987. In 1988 he became a leading supporter of George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign and saw his efforts pay off when Bush carried the state’s critical twelve electoral votes.
In 1989 President Bush named Coverdell director of the Peace Corps, a position he held until 1991. The corps had seen its ranks and budget shrink and was perceived to be in organizational disarray. Although there was some speculation that Coverdell had been appointed to dismantle the agency, he worked to secure budget increases and began a recruitment campaign to encourage more Americans to volunteer for humanitarian service throughout the world. With encouragement from the White House, Coverdell was persuaded to leave the agency to run against incumbent Georgia Democratic senator Wyche Fowler in 1992.
Coverdell faced a strong primary challenge from a former U.S. attorney, Bob Barr. Barr proved to be an aggressive campaigner, and Coverdell was forced into a runoff, which he won by fewer than 1,600 votes. The general election also proved difficult. Coverdell trailed Fowler by more than 30,000 votes after the tallies were completed. Because a third-party candidate had won 3 percent of the vote, however, Fowler did not receive the required 50 percent of the total vote. In the runoff election three weeks later, Coverdell won by fewer than 20,000 votes, having faced four separate elections to gain his U.S. Senate seat.
In the Senate, Coverdell was appointed to the committees on foreign relations, agriculture, and small business. He worked against tax increases, to protect more federal lands in national parks, and for humanitarian concerns. He was active in writing policies to toughen drug sentencing and enhance law enforcement efforts. His crowning achievement in his Senate career came in the area of education. Coverdell drafted new legislation allowing individuals to make pretax contributions to educational savings accounts, now known as Coverdell Education Savings Accounts.
On July 19, 2000, Coverdell, having returned to Georgia from Washington for a weekend of speaking engagements and service to his constituents, died in Atlanta of a brain aneurysm. His papers are housed at the Ina Dillard Russell Library of Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville.
In January 2003 a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the Paul D. Coverdell Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences at the University of Georgia in Athens, which was completed in 2005. The building, which is designed to encourage interdisciplinary research, houses several departments, including the College of Public Health and the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases.