U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson has announced that he will resign at the end of this year, three years before his third term expires, because of health issues. It will be a great loss for Georgia, the Senate and the nation.
Isakson’s decision last week came after “much prayer and consultation with my family and my doctors,” the senator said. “I am leaving a job I love because my health challenges are taking their toll on me, my family and my staff. My Parkinson’s has been progressing, and I am continuing physical therapy to recover from a fall in July. In addition, this week I had surgery to remove a growth on my kidney.” He concluded he will be unable to do his job over the long term. “It goes against every fiber of my being to leave in the middle of my Senate term,” he said, “but I know it’s the right thing to do on behalf of my state.”
That straightforward acknowledgement is what we expect of Sen. Isakson, who has never dodged an issue or beat around the bush regardless of political fallout. It’s accurate to say that Johnny Isakson is one of a kind, respected for his integrity and his gentlemanly approach in the political arena, standing firm on principle but willing to reach across the aisle, eschewing the kind of ugly partisanship that has come to define America’s politics. He is the statesman that all citizens deserve but rarely find in politics.
Isakson, 74, who helped build a successful real estate company, won his Senate seat in 2004 after the retirement of Democrat Zell Miller and gained reelection in 2010 and 2016, becoming the first Republican from Georgia elected to a third term. He previously served in the U.S. House, elected in 1999 to succeed former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Decades earlier, Isakson began his political career with election to the Georgia House in 1976, serving 14 years, and later winning a seat in the Georgia Senate for one term. He has the distinction of being the only legislator elected to both houses of the Georgia General Assembly and both houses of Congress.
The high esteem in which Isakson is held by those who know him was summarized by his longtime Democrat friend, former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who said: “Johnny is one of the greatest public servants that we’ve had, and he will be sorely missed. His greatest attribute is the ability to build coalitions with everyone on either side of the house. He’s a dear friend of mine and I hate to see him leave, but I completely understand it. There are some giant shoes to fill.”
Similar reactions came from Isakson’s fellow senators, members of Congress and other elected officials. Sen. David Perdue of Georgia said: “When Johnny Isakson speaks, people listen. He is a true statesman, and it shows every day.” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said Isakson is a “wonderful human being and a great senator.” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer accurately described Isakson in this way: “Not only is Johnny a diligent and successful legislator, he is one of the kindest, most thoughtful senators. Independent of any party or politics, everyone will miss Johnny.” Rep. Doug Collins, R-GA, said Isakson “has been a standard of public service and statesmanship for decades in Georgia.” Rep. Tom Graves, R-GA, likewise praised Isakson’s “unwavering dedication to our state and our country.”
Gov. Brian Kemp said, “No one embodies the heart and soul of Georgia more than Johnny Isakson,” adding that the senator is “a true gentleman, a fighter for his constituents, a trusted advocate for our nation’s veterans and one of the greatest statesmen to ever answer the call of service to our country.” It will be Kemp’s responsibility to make an interim appointment until a successor to Isakson is elected in November 2020 to fill his unexpired term. Thus, both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats will be contested next year, intensifying efforts by Democrats to pull an upset and pushing Republicans to pull out all the stops to keep Georgia red with their already slim control of the Senate at stake.
Despite having to cope with Parkinson’s for the past six years, Isakson has been indefatigable in the Senate, shouldering a double workload as chairman of both the Ethics Committee and the Veterans Affairs Committee; notably, he is the only Republican heading two committees in the GOP-controlled Senate. He also sits on three other committees: Finance, Foreign Relations and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. It is in service to veterans that Isakson has concentrated much of his efforts, most recently with his committee producing bipartisan legislation reforming the VA’s health care delivery system to provide veterans more choice and fewer barriers to care. He also has been a strong advocate for education and a stalwart conservative on taxes.
With characteristic determination, Isakson says he looks forward to returning to Washington on Sept. 9 when the Senate goes back into session. “And after Dec. 31,” he says, “I look forward to continuing to help the people of Georgia in any way I can and also helping those who are working toward a cure for Parkinson’s.” Would you expect anything less from this exceptional man?
In summary, Johnny Isakson has been a voice of wisdom, justice and moderation in Georgia politics for four decades, personifying our state’s official motto which is composed of those words. His life of service is a model not only for all who seek political office but for everyone else. That is the legacy of John Hardy Isakson.