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, whose real estate business made him a millionaire, spent more than four decades in Georgia political life. In the Senate, he was the architect of a popular tax credit for first-time home buyers that he said would help invigorate the struggling housing market. As chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, he worked to expand programs offering more private health care choices 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. Soon after winning reelection in 2016, he underwent a scheduled surgery on his back to address spinal deterioration. He frequently depended on a cane or wheelchair in later years.
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.
In a farewell Senate speech, he pleaded for bipartisanship at a time of bitter divisions between Republicans and Democrats. He cited his long friendship with U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and civil rights hero, as an example of two men willing to put party aside to work on common problems.
“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.”
An Atlanta native, Isakson failed in his first bid for elected office: a seat on the Cobb County Commission in 1974. Two years later, he was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, becoming the only Republican to beat a Democratic incumbent in Georgia the same year Jimmy Carter was elected president. Isakson served 17 years in the state House and Senate. 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 said in a statement.
Isakson suffered humbling setbacks before ascending to the Senate. In 1990, he lost the race for governor to Democrat Zell Miller. In 1996, Guy Millner defeated him in a Republican primary for Senate before Millner lost to Democrat Max Cleland.
Many observers chalked up the loss to Isakson not being tough enough on abortion. 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 later changed his mind on the contentious issue.
Isakson’s jump to Congress came about in 1998, when U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich decided not to seek reelection. Isakson won a 1999 special election to fill the suburban Atlanta seat.
He finally made it to the U.S. Senate in 2004 when he defeated Democrat Denise Majette with 58% of the vote. He served with Georgia senior Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a close friend and classmate from the University of Georgia.
Isakson was viewed as a prohibitive early favorite to succeed Republican Sonny Perdue in the governor’s mansion in 2010. But he opted instead to seek a second term in the Senate. While there, he developed a reputation as a moderate, although he rarely split with his party on key votes.
He was a lead negotiator in 2007 on immigration legislation that President George W. Bush backed but ultimately abandoned after it met strong resistance from the right. Chambliss and Isakson were booed at a Georgia Republican Party convention that year over their 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. at 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 graduated from the University of Georgia in 1966 and joined his family-owned company, Northside Realty in Cobb County, a year later. It grew to one of the largest independent residential real estate brokerage companies in the country during his more than 20 years at the helm. Isakson also served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966 to 1972.
He is survived by his wife, Diane, whom he married in 1968; three children and nine grandchildren.
Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia.