ATLANTA — Johnny Isakson, an affable Georgia Republican politician who rose from the ranks of the state legislature to become a U.S. senator known as an effective, behind-the-scenes consensus builder, died Sunday. He was 76.
Isakson’s son John Isakson told The Associated Press that his father died in his sleep before dawn at his home in Atlanta. John Isakson said that although his father had Parkinson’s disease, the cause of death was not immediately apparent.
“He was a great man and I will miss him,” John Isakson said.
Johnny Isakson was a multi-millionaire in real estate and spent over four decades serving Georgia politics. He was also the creator of the popular tax credit for first homebuyers that he claimed would boost the market’s recovery. His work as chairman of Senate Veterans Affairs Committee was to create more options for private health care for veterans.
Isakson’s famous motto was, “There are two types of people in this world: friends and future friends.” That approach made him exceedingly popular among colleagues.
“Johnny was one of my very best friends in the Senate,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Sunday. “But the amazing thing about him was that at any given time, approximately 98 other Senators felt the same way. His infectious warmth and charisma, his generosity, and his integrity made Johnny one of the most admired and beloved people in the Capitol.”
In 2015, while gearing up to seek a third term in the Senate, Isakson disclosed that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a chronic and progressive movement disorder that had left him with a noticeably slower, shuffling gait. After winning the 2016 reelection election, he had to undergo scheduled surgery on his lower back in order to correct spinal degeneration. In later years, he relied heavily on a wheelchair or cane.
In August 2019, not long after fracturing four ribs in a fall at his Washington apartment, Isakson announced he would retire at year’s end with two years remaining in his term.
He pleaded for bipartisanship in a moment of bitter divides between Republicans, Democrats and Democrats during his farewell Senate speech. His longstanding friendship with U.S. Rep. John Lewis (an Atlanta Democrat, civil rights icon) was a prime example of two men that are open to working together on common issues.
“Let’s solve the problem and then see what happens,” Isakson said. “Most people who call people names and point fingers are people who don’t have a solution themselves.”
Lewis, who died last year, saluted Isakson on the House floor in 2019, saying, “We always found a way to get along and do the work the people deserve.”
After the speech, Lewis walked over to hug a hobbling Isakson, saying, “I will come over to meet you, brother.”
Isakson, a native of Atlanta, failed to win his first attempt at elected office. He was seeking a seat on Cobb County Commission. In 1974. In Georgia’s House of Representatives in 2002, Isakson was elected as the Republican who defeated the Democratic incumbent. He also became the second Republican to be elected that year. Isakson was a member of the Senate and state House for 17 years. Always in the minority in Georgia’s General Assembly, he helped blaze the path toward the GOP ascendancy of the 2000s, fueled by Atlanta’s suburban boom. By the end of Isakson’s career, some of those same suburbs were swinging back toward Democrats.
“As a businessman and a gifted retail politician, Johnny paved the way for the modern Republican Party in Georgia, but he never let partisan politics get in the way of doing what was right,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp released a statement.
Isakson was humbled by setbacks, but he eventually rose to the Senate. In 1990, he was defeated by Zell Miller in the race for governor. Guy Millner defeated Millner in 1996 during a Republican primary to the Senate. Millner then lost to Max Cleland.
Many observers blamed Isakson’s inability to be tough enough about abortion for the loss. In the primary race, Isakson ran a television advertisement in which he said that while he was against the government funding or promoting abortion, he would “not vote to amend the Constitution to make criminals of women and their doctors.”
“I trust my wife, my daughter and the women of Georgia to make the right choice,” he said.
He changed his mind later on this contentious matter.
Isakson’s jump to Congress came about in 1998, when U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich decided not to seek reelection. Isakson won the 1999 special election for the suburban Atlanta seat.
Finally, he made it to U.S. Senate 2004 after he defeat Denise Majette (58%). As a friend and former classmate at the University of Georgia, he served alongside Georgia’s senior senator Saxby Chambliss.
Isakson was viewed as a prohibitive early favorite to succeed Republican Sonny Perdue in the governor’s mansion in 2010. He chose to run for a second term as a senator. Although he was a respected moderate during his time in office, he did not often split with his party when it came to key votes.
He served as a leader negotiator for the 2007 immigration legislation, which President George W. Bush had backed, but was ultimately rejected by the right. Chambliss, Isakson and others were heckled at the Georgia Republican Party Convention that year for their anti-immigration stance.
Isakson supported limited school vouchers and played a major role in crafting Bush’s signature education plan, the No Child Left Behind Act. He also pushed an unsuccessful compromise bill on the politically charged issue of stem cell research that would have expanded research funding while also ensuring that human embryos weren’t harmed.
That deal-making approach has fallen out of favor for many voters, but Isakson’s lineage remains a presence in Georgia politics. State Attorney General Chris Carr was the former senator’s chief of staff. “When I was a young man just getting started in politics, I wanted to be like Johnny Isakson,” Carr said Sunday.
Democratic Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock said “all of Georgia” grieves Isakson’s death. Warnock, who took over Isakson’s old seat after defeating Republican Kelly Loeffler in a January runoff, had a special connection to Isakson, who attended an annual service in honor of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a member of Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta. The church’s pulpit was King’s and later became Warnock’s. Warnock also has continued Isakson’s tradition of an annual barbecue lunch for all senators.
Isakson’s “model of public service is an example to future generations of leaders on how to stand on principle and make progress while also governing with compassion and a heart for compromise,” Warnock said Sunday.
Isakson was a graduate of the University of Georgia, and he joined Northside Realty, his family’s business in Cobb County, one year later. In his nearly 20 years of leadership, the company grew into one the biggest independent residential brokerages in the country. Isakson was also a member of the Georgia Air National Guard between 1966 and 1972.
Diane, his wife of 38 years, survived him. He had three children with Diane and has nine grandchildren.
Bynum was reporting from Savannah, Georgia.