Beloved Georgia Politician Johnny Isakson passes away
Johnny Isakson began his political life serving the people of Georgia and spent his time in Washington cutting deals on behalf of the American people. Known as a deal maker, his interest resided in doing what was best for people, regardless of politics. Isakson died Sunday morning at the age of 76 after battling Parkinson’s disease for nearly a decade. The former Senator rose to become one of Georgia’s most popular politicians before stepping down in late 2019 due to declining health.
With a background in real estate, Isakson began his political career in Cobb County. After successful decades in government, he announced his retirement and departed politics.
A conservative, Isakson knew that to get something done, he needed to work with both sides of the aisle. Democrats and Republicans loved and respected Isakson for this. While in Washington, he collaborated with Democrats in Congress, which many of his colleagues frowned upon, but this did not stop Isakson. His ability to work with everyone allowed the Senator to lead many efforts on behalf of the American people including the No Child Left Behind education law and, later, its replacement. Isakson also worked to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs, immigration policy, and health care.
During the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremonies at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Isakson was a regular fixture, most times being the sole Republican at these events. It was during one of the annual programs that he would meet Rev. Raphael Warnock. Warnock would later run and win the senate seat that Isakson once occupied in Washington. Known for his small gestures of kindness, Isakson’s motto was a simple one: “There are two types of people in this world: friends and future friends.”
The oldest son of Julia and Edwin Andrew Isakson, John Hardy Isakson was born in 1944 and grew up in South Fulton. As a teenager, he spent his summers on his maternal grandparents’ farm in rural Ben Hill County. Isakson attended the University of Georgia, where he met his wife, Dianne.
Isakson’s first campaign was for Cobb County Commission in 1974, which he lost. He would go on to win a seat in the state House in 1976 and rose to the minority leader post in 1983.
Said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who was floor leader for Gov. Joe Frank Harris when Isakson was minority leader, “He was very amicable and approachable. He’s been the same to me whether or not he was in power or out of power, and I think that’s key when you’re consistent with how you carry yourself.”
Isakson ran for governor in 1990, but lost to Democrat Zell Miller following a nasty and often personal campaign. In 1992, he won a state Senate seat. In 1996 he ran for U.S. Senate, but lost the Republican primary to businessman Guy Millner. Isakson was ready to leave politics and go back to real estate until he got a call from Gov. Miller to come to the governor’s mansion.
The Democrat offered Isakson a job as head of the state Board of Education, which he accepted. When U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich stepped down abruptly after the 1998 midterms, Isakson was ready.
In a quick-turn special election in a Cobb County-based district, Isakson won and went to Congress in early 1999. When Miller, by then a member of the U.S. Senate, stepped down in 2004, Isakson ran to replace him. After winning the primary, he won the general election and became the only Georgian ever to have been elected to the state House, state Senate, and both chambers of Congress.
Isakson enjoyed a reputation as a savvy dealmaker. When President Barack Obama wanted to reset his icy relationship with Senate Republicans, he called on Isakson to get them together for dinner.
Isakson’s schedule slowed a little after he revealed in 2015 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His retirement announcement in 2019 led to Gov. Brian Kemp appointing Kelly Loeffler to replace Isakson.
In January 2021, after serving for a little more than a year, Loeffler lost to Democrat Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church whom Isakson had invited to Washington on multiple occasions over the years to witness the State of the Union addresses.
SPOTLIGHT offers condolences to the Isakson family.