ATLANTA — Statesman, guardsman and even Bulldog are just a few of the titles former Senator Johnny Isakson has held throughout his life of service to our country.
Isakson passed away Sunday morning at age 76 after battling Parkinson’s disease.
“Georgia has lost a giant, one of its greatest statesmen, and a servant leader dedicated to making his state and country better than he found it,” said Governor Brian Kemp. “Johnny Isakson personified what it means to be a Georgian. Johnny was also a dear friend to Marty, the girls, and me – as he was to so many. He answered the call to public service many times over his career as a state legislator, minority leader in the Georgia House, chair of the State Board of Education, Congressman, and finally as Senator.
John Hardy Isakson was a lifelong Georgian. He was born Dec. 28, 1944 in Atlanta to a Greyhound bus driver and a stay-at-home mother. He served in the U.S. Senate from 2005 to 2019.
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Isakson’s father, Edwin, would eventually start a real estate firm, which Johnny would join in following his college career.
He first flirted with politics as a student at the University of Georgia, volunteering for Republican Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964.
“I went and looked at the vote patterns and where I lived, which is east Cobb County. (It) had gone Republican, but nobody else had around them. It wasn’t a total Republican district, but it looked like it was moving that way, so I said, ‘Well, I really believe more in what Richard Nixon stands for economically than George McGovern,’” Isakson said.
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He graduated from UGA in 1966 and then entered into the Georgia National Guard, where he reached the rank of staff sergeant.
“My senior year of college I got a diploma and a draft notice on the same day. I joined the National Guard, of which I’m very proud — I’m still a Guardsman to this day,” Isakson said during a 10-minute speech on the Senate floor paying tribute to his friend Sen. John McCain in August 2018 “I consciously did that because I wanted to do everything I could to stay here and get married.”
Isakson talked about losing close friends who went off to fight in Vietnam.
One of the things Isakson would be proudest of in his time as a lawmaker would be his support for veterans. Isakson would become a member of the Senate VA Committee and would a key role in reforming veterans’ health care and benefits and making the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs more responsive to the veterans it serves.
After graduating, Isakson opened a branch of the family’s real estate business, Northside Realty, in 1967.
During Isakson’s 20 years as president of Northside, the company grew into the largest independent residential real estate brokerage company in the Southeast and one of the largest in America.
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After establishing the real estate company, Isakson would marry his wife Diane in 1968. They had three children together.
It wasn’t until 1974 that Isakson would start making a name for himself in politics. That was the first time he ran for the Georgia House of Representatives for his district in eastern Cobb County. He lost that time around but ran again in 1976 and won. He would eventually work his way up to become the Republican minority leader.
After an unsuccessful bid for the governorship in 1990, he was elected to the Georgia Senate, where he served from 1993 to 1996. That year he ran for U.S. Senate race but was defeated in the primary.
When then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced in 1998 that he was resigning from the U.S. House of Representatives, Isakson ran in a special election in 1999 and won. In 2004 he was elected to the Senate, and he took office the following year.
He is the first Georgian ever to have been elected to the state House, state Senate, U.S. House and U.S. Senate. In 2016, he became the first Republican in Georgia to be elected to a third term in the U.S. Senate.
Former Gov. Nathan Deal called Isakson the “stable conservative” in the Senate.
Throughout his career in the Senate has chaired the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. Isakson was also a member of the Senate Committee on Finance and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Isakson was generally one to avoid Washington’s glaring spotlight, particularly when it came to his most sensitive areas of work. He was also a Senate institutionalist, one who was quick to defend the body’s constitutional prerogative.
“I’m a known commodity in this state,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 2014 article. “All you’ve got to do is Google my name and you can find out everything I’ve ever done — and everything I haven’t ever done.”
In June 2015, Isakson disclosed that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. At the time he was running for reelection to the Senate and didn’t let the diagnosis stop him.
“Some people would say, ‘Oh maybe it’s time to slow down,’” Isakson said. “I’m not slowing down. In fact, if anything I announced I was running for reelection knowing what you now know. I thought it was important to be transparent about that, but I also thought it was important for me to take control rather than Parkinson’s take control.”
The disease slowed him down physically — having to use a cane and leaving him with a shuffling gait — but Isakson continued to position himself at the center of Capitol Hill’s biggest debates.
Isakson said he saw his role in Washington as evolving as he climbed to the top of the seniority ladder and several of his more deal-minded peers were retiring.
In August 2019, Isakson announced that he would resign at the end of the year, citing health reasons.
“After much prayer and consultation with my family and my doctors, I have made the very tough decision to leave the U.S. Senate at the end of this year.” Isakson said at the time in a statement. “With the mounting health challenges I am facing, I have concluded that I will not be able to do the job over the long term in the manner the citizens of Georgia deserve. It goes against every fiber of my being to leave in the middle of my Senate term, but I know it’s the right thing to do on behalf of my state.”
His retirement triggered praise from state leaders from both parties, including Atlanta Democratic Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who said Isakson’s departure is a “great loss” for Georgia.
Gov. Brian Kemp said Isakson’s impact on the state will be remembered for years to come.
“Johnny Isakson is a great American, truly a great Georgian,” Kemp said. “I certainly appreciate him putting the state and his country ahead of himself.”
Isakson said despite stepping aside in the Senate, he was still going to fight anyway he could to help the people of Georgia and work to find a cure for Parkinson’s.
With his resignation, it brought the end of a 40-year political career for Isakson. But the one thing that never changed throughout that time was Isakson was no one but himself.
“My father used to tell me: ‘Don’t try and be something you aren’t. You’ll screw it up,’” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’ve always tried to be me, and regardless of what I’m doing, whether it’s the job I had in my business or whether it’s being a father or a United States senator, I try to be a predictable, reliable person so everybody knows where I am and where I stand.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this article.
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