Former Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson Dies At 76

The moderate, who resigned in 2019 due to his health issues, was known for making deals with Democrats in an otherwise polarized Congress.

Former Sen. Johnny Isakson, a moderate Republican who became one of Georgia’s most popular politicians, died early Sunday. He was 76.

“It is with deep sorry that The Isakson Initiative shares that former U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson passed away overnight on December 19, 2021, at age 76,” the organization, which raises funding for research on neurocognitive diseases, said in a statement on the former senator’s Twitter account. “Sen. Isakson’s family is grateful for the prayers and support. Funeral arrangements will be shared when finalized.”

Isakson’s eldest son told The Associated Press that his father died in his sleep, and that, although his father had Parkinson’s disease, the cause of death was not immediately apparent.

Isakson spent over four decades in politics and, despite several losses early in his career, he rose the ranks to become an effective and prominent dealmaker in a polarized Senate, known for his willingness to work with Democrats, even when it resulted in backlash from his conservative colleagues.

“If you had a vote in the Senate on who’s the most respected and well-liked member, Johnny would win probably 100 to nothing,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2019. “His demeanor is quite different from what most people expect of politicians.”

In 2015, Isakson revealed that he had been diagnosed two years earlier with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder that affects a person’s movement, causing tremors, stiffness and loss of balance. The disease can be slowed with treatment, but it is currently incurable.

In his announcement, he said that he will “handle my personal health challenge with the same transparency that I have championed throughout my career,” and that he would continue to serve in the Senate.

In 2019, the three-term senator said that he planned to resign at the end of the year, citing his “mounting health challenges,” which included Parkinson’s, an unrelated surgery, and a fall that resulted in fractured ribs and a torn rotator cuff. Isakson said he would “not be able to do the job over the long term in the manner the citizens of Georgia deserve.”

Georgia’s congressional delegation gathered to pay tribute to Isakson, with the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) recalling the close friendship they developed over the years.

“You, senator, led a team that could cross the aisle without compromising your values. I will come over to meet you, brother,” Lewis said before walking toward Isakson on the Republican side of the aisle. The GOP senator rose to meet Lewis halfway and the two embraced.

“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,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) said in a statement on Sunday. “Johnny Isakson personified what it means to be a Georgian. … He answered the call to public service many times over his career.”

“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,” the governor continued. “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 Atlanta native first made his bid for elected office in 1974 when he unsuccessfully ran for Georgia’s state House, though he succeeded two years later. He went on to serve in the state legislature for 17 years.

After Isakson lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race to Democrat Zell Miller in 1990 and the GOP U.S. Senate primary to Guy Millner in 1996, fellow Republicans blamed Isakson’s loss on him not being adequately anti-abortion. In the primary against Millner, 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.”

When Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich stepped down after the 1998 midterms, Isakson ran for his seat and won. In 2004, he ran to replace Miller — by then a senator — but faced similar attacks in the Republican primary for his stance on abortion. This time, Isakson took a harder line on the issue, saying he would only support legal abortion in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. He won.

Then-Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) in February 2019.
Then-Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) in February 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite via Associated Press

Isakson was the lead negotiator on compromise immigration legislation that President George W. Bush tried to push through Congress in 2007. Bush eventually abandoned the plan after Republicans made their opposition to it very clear — including booing Isakson at the Georgia Republican Party convention that year.

The lawmaker also supported limited school vouchers and was influential in crafting the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act. He also pushed a compromise bill on the contentious issue of stem cell research that would have expanded funding for the research while ensuring human embryos weren’t harmed — but he ultimately voted against the final version of the legislation, which Bush later vetoed.

As chairman of the Select Committee on Ethics and the Veterans Affairs Committee, Isakson at times clashed with President Donald Trump’s administration on care for veterans, helped expand private health care options for veterans facing long wait times, and expedited the removal of problematic employees at the department. The senator also quietly rejected Trump’s nomination of Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House’s physician, to lead the VA after Jackson was accused of creating a toxic work environment and drinking on the job.

“Senator Isakson was a statesman who served Georgia with honor,” Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) said on Sunday. “He put his state and his country ahead of self and party, and his great legacy endures.”

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