Tributes from across the nation highlighted the service, accomplishments and character of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a longtime Cobb County resident who died over the weekend at age 76.
Known for his motto that “There are two types of people in this world: friends and future friends,” Isakson was widely admired by both sides of the political aisle.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement that Isakson was one of his very best friends in the Senate.
“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.”
The former senator announced in 2015 he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He cited the disease’s advance when he announced his retirement from the Senate in 2019.
Isakson held the distinction of being the only Georgian ever to have been elected to the Georgia House, Georgia Senate, U.S. House and U.S. Senate. In 2016, he also became the first Georgia Republican ever to be elected to a third term in the U.S. Senate.
President Joe Biden called Isakson a colleague and friend.
“We served together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, traveled together, and found common ground built on mutual respect for each other and the institutions that govern our nation,” Biden said in a statement.
“Johnny was a proud Republican, but he put country before party, and valued building consensus over political combat. I always loved Johnny’s description of the only division he saw as between ‘friends and future friends.’
“In Johnny’s memory, let us heed the wisdom he offered upon retiring from the Senate, where he urged everyone to devote less energy to describing problems and more effort to working together to provide answers. Johnny Isakson was a patriot and a gentleman. Georgia has lost an indispensable son. America has lost an exemplary leader. Our prayers are with Dianne and the entire Isakson family,” Biden said.
In a statement shared on social media Sunday, Gov. Brian Kemp said “Georgia has lost a giant, one of its greatest statesman, and a servant leader dedicated to making his state and country better than he found it.
“As a businessman and 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.”
Posting on Twitter, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams wrote, “U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson served the whole of Georgia with attention and fairness. With every interaction, my respect for him grew and never wavered. Though we held different ideologies, I was honored to call him friend.”
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich called Isakson’s passing the end of an era.
“Johnny was a founder of the modern Georgia GOP. His years of patient, steady work with an always positive attitude, a smile for everyone, and a balanced approach to life, politics, and government made Georgia a better place,” Gingrich said.
U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, said Georgia “mourns the loss of a great statesman and stalwart public servant who for decades worked diligently across the aisle for the common good of our communities.
“With decency and humility, U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson embodied the best of the American spirit of cooperation in the pursuit of better, and from his service, Georgia is a better state and the United States a more perfect nation.
“Johnny and I served together in the state House of Representatives, in the state Senate and in the Congress of the United States. For decades, he was my friend and my partner in bipartisan leadership and I will miss him very much.
“I thank God for sending Johnny Isakson our way and may God bless him,” Scott said.
Lisa Cupid, chair of the Cobb Board of Commissioners, said like many she was fortunate to have had meaningful interaction with Isakson.
“I appreciate his insight, his candor and encouragement of me as a community advocate and later, as a district commissioner. Cobb is fortunate to have a national statesman as one of our own,” Cupid said.
Isakson was born in Atlanta on Dec. 28, 1944, and graduated from the University of Georgia in 1966 before serving in the Georgia Air National Guard until 1972, according to his Senate biography. He opened the first Cobb County office of his small, family-owned real estate business, Northside Realty, in 1967 and spent 20 years as president of the firm, growing it into one of the largest independent real estate brokerage companies in the Southeast and nationwide.
He was elected a member of the Georgia General Assembly in 1976 and served there until 1990 when he unsuccessfully campaigned for election as governor.
From 1993 to 1996, he was a member of the Georgia Senate, then he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate and became chair of the Georgia Board of Education.
Isakson was elected in 1999 to the U.S. House for the first of three terms.
In 2004, he was elected to his first term in the U.S. Senate and he won reelection in 2010 and 2016. In the latter race he won 54% of the vote and in early 2018 he told a crowd gathered at an Atlanta Press Club event that he planned to run for reelection in 2022.
His declining health would change those plans, however.
“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 when announcing his retirement in August of 2019. “I am leaving a job I love because my health challenges are taking their toll on me, my family and my staff.”
On his website, Isakson highlighted his key bipartisan efforts to address federal spending, reduce debt, create jobs and reform federal regulations.
After becoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in 2015, Isakson pushed for more transparency within the agency and benefit reforms for veterans’ health care.
Under his leadership, the committee passed 25 pieces of legislation in 2017 and 2018, which were all signed into law, including the flagship Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks (MISSION) Act, which included changes meant to improve the VA’s healthcare delivery system and provide veterans with more choices and fewer barriers to care.
“At the reins of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Johnny shepherded scores of bills to better fulfill our nation’s promises to the men and women who have served it in uniform — from expanding education benefits to improving accountability at the VA,” McConnell said. “His interests spanned from infrastructure in Savannah to combating hunger worldwide. And his compassion for one grieving family led Johnny to secure lasting protections for Americans volunteering abroad.”
State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-east Cobb, has called Isakson one of her personal heroes, citing his ability to bring people together and face issues with common sense.
Isakson was known, in part, for a commitment to bridging partisan divides. His farewell speech to the Senate included a plea for bipartisanship.
“There’s something missing in this place. … America, we’ve got a problem, just like Apollo had,” Isakson said in his speech.
“Bipartisanship is a state of being, a state of mind,” he continued. “We’ve got to stand up to the evils of society today because if we don’t do it, nobody will. The best country, the strongest country in the world cannot succumb to crushing itself inwardly.”
During his time as senator, one of Isakson’s most popular annual events was the luncheon he hosted in Washington for the entire Senate, uniting both Republican and Democratic members through a shared love of Southern food.
Marietta chef and restaurant owner Dale Thornton, a 30-year friend of Isakson’s, had been involved in almost every annual luncheon put on by the senator going back 11 years.
“Johnny is a true statesman in a time when there’s very few left,” Thornton told the MDJ upon learning of his retirement in 2019. “He tries to be bipartisan as much as possible and do what is right for the people, the state and the nation.”
Kerwin Swint, director of the School of Government and International Affairs at Kennesaw State University, said before Isakson’s retirement the then-senator stood out among elected officials for his bipartisan approach and admiration from all, regardless of their political persuasion.
“He’s been a fixture of Georgia politics for decades and helped build up the Republican party in the late 20th century,” Swint told the MDJ. “He’s got a long legacy of building and success and he’s really known for his integrity.”
Swint said Isakson, affectionately known as “Gentleman Johnny,” is the opposite of pushy legislators, preferring instead to be cordial and let ego take a back seat.
“He’s someone who is unafraid to be different, to lead and to criticize when necessary and who has built a real following in both parties. He’s not into power politics, he just wants to do a good job and help people, he’s been reliable, and the bipartisan admiration for him is a little different in this day and age, no question about it.”
After his retirement, Isakson dedicated himself to raising money for Parkinson’s research.
Isakson provided the final contribution to the Isakson Chair for Parkinson’s Research at the University of Georgia, helping the endowment reach its $4.5 million goal. And he founded the Isakson Initiative, a non-profit devoted to funding research on Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other neurological diseases.
For his contributions as a lawmaker and member of the Cobb community, Isakson received numerous awards throughout his life.
The MDJ presented Isakson with the Cobb County Citizen of the Year Award in 1988. At the time, Isakson’s real estate company had more than 1,000 agents, 28 offices and $1.4 billion in annual sales, the MDJ reported.
In 2017, Isakson was named East Cobb Citizen of the Year at a Cobb Chamber of Commerce breakfast where he was celebrated by a who’s who of local business leaders, elected and appointed officials and members of the East Cobb Area Council.
Then-Cobb Chamber President David Connell described Isakson as “the definition of a statesman and a public servant.”
At the time, Isakson’s wife, Dianne, said her husband had enjoyed their almost 50 years in Cobb and their involvement in the county’s growth and development.
Cobb Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said Isakson was long overdue to receive the award, commenting at the time he’d done so much for the county, Georgia and the entire nation.
“I can’t think of a finer, more deserving person,” Birrell said at the time.
In accepting the honor, Isakson said Cobb was the greatest county in Georgia and he was proud to call it home.
“It’s where I raised my family, built my business and go to church,” he said at the time. “This is one of the best honors I can think of, and I appreciate it tremendously.”
On Monday, flags at Cobb County Government buildings flew at half staff in remembrance of Isakson.