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 his father died in his sleep before dawn Sunday at his home in Atlanta. John Isakson said that although his father had Parkinson's disease, the cause of death was not immediately apparent.
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.
“His work to champion our veterans, deliver disaster relief for Georgia farmers after Hurricane Michael, and always stand up for Georgia’s best interest in the U.S. Senate will live on for generations to come,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement. “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."
The Marietta Republican had suffered health problems in recent years that left him frequently dependent on a cane or wheelchair. 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 gate. Soon after winning reelection in 2016, he underwent a scheduled surgery on his back to address spinal deterioration.
In August 2019, not long after fracturing four ribs in a fall at his Washington apartment, Isakson announced he would retire at the year’s end with two years remaining in his term.
In a farewell speech on the Senate floor, Isakson pleaded for bipartisanship in Congress at a time of bitter divisions between Republicans and Democrats. He cited his long friendship with the late 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.”
The Atlanta native made his first bid for elected office in 1974 when he ran — and lost — a race for the Georgia House of Representatives. He succeeded two years later and went on to serve 17 years in the Georgia Legislature, with time in both the House and Senate.
He suffered a couple of 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.
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 when in 1998 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. In the Senate, 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, Isakson developed a reputation as a moderate, although he rarely split with his party on key votes.
He was a lead negotiator in 2007 on compromise immigration legislation that President George W. Bush sought to push through Congress but ultimately abandoned after it met strong resistance from the right. Chambliss and Isakson were booed at a Georgia Republican Party convention that year when the immigration issue arose.
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 a compromise bill on the politically charged issue of stem cell research that would have expanded funding for the research while also ensuring that human embryos weren't harmed.
Isakson’s bill would have permitted research on cells derived from amniotic fluid and placentas and from embryos that have died naturally. The bill wasn’t included in the legislative package that ultimately emerged and Isakson voted against the final version of the legislation that was later vetoed by President Bush.
Isakson graduated from the University of Georgia in 1966 and founded 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.