By Bill Crane, contributor
Not even a decade out of the University of Georgia (Class of 1966), Johnny Isakson was first elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1976, in the aftermath and GOP wreckage of Watergate. Most Americans were still running from the party of Nixon, while Isakson and a handful of others in Georgia were instead trying to build out a two-party system.
Throughout the remaining 70s and 80s, Isakson, soon the Georgia House Minority Leader, would join his State Senate counter-part Paul Coverdell, along with DeKalb GOP Senator Bob Bell, in building a party calling for smaller, more efficient government, free markets, individual responsibility and the fiscal conservatism which would long define the Georgia Republican Party. Isakson, Bell and Coverdell were a strong trio, raising funds, credibility and visibility, traveling the state and particularly seeking support from Georgia’s fast growing business community. Then Congressman Newt Gingrich would arrive later on the scene, create GOPAC and begin building out the machinery which would result in the GOP take-over of the U.S. Congress in 1994 (as well the Georgia Congressional delegation majority which it has held since). But while Gingrich was a grenade thrower always seeking the spotlight and attention, the man who would later hold his congressional seat (Isakson), was instead focused on building consensus and getting results. Thank you Johnny.
Isakson would carry the mantle for a GOP contest for Governor in 1990, losing to then Lieutenant Governor Zell Miller. Miller thought enough of his opponent that he would later appoint him chair of the State School Board. Isakson would serve as State GOP Party Chair, a member of the State Senate and all the while continuing to build out the family business, Northside Realty, which would go on to become one of the largest independent realtors in the southeast. Through the Reagan/Bush and later Bush again years, Isakson was continually seen as a voice of consensus and moderation, reaching across the aisle whether from the minority or majority position.
“I’ve been in the Minority and the Majority. The majority is better (pause, wink and smile), but you still need the other side to reach a solution, pass laws and solve the problems facing our nation. Compromise may seem to some a dirty word, but it is necessary to the infrastructure of building legislation,” Isakson said.
This moderation would be viewed by some critics as weakness and it caused a few election nights to last longer than they otherwise might have for Isakson. But thankfully, in part due to a loyal core of support in metro Atlanta, as well as a healthy percentage of moderates and independents who long followed and supported him, he only lost the one political contest in 1990. Isakson is the only Georgian to have served in both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly, as well as in the U.S. House and Senate. He is also the only GOP U.S. Senator to win three terms and the only current member of our Senate to chair two committees, Veterans Affairs and Ethics. Thank you Johnny.
And though Johnny would not choose to publicly attack a President far from being his first choice in 2016, or write critical op-eds, as fellow U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has chosen to do, or open fire from the comfortable chair of one of the Sunday morning political round-tables, as former Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake did on several occasions, Isakson has made clear, on several occasions, his disagreement or disappointment with many of President Trump’s public statements and tweets, particularly those critical of P.O.W.s (prisoners of war) and former Senate colleague John McCain (R-AZ). For those expecting Isakson to suddenly change his style and open fire, or now commenting, ‘what has he got to lose?’ Ask Arizonans, represented by Flake and McCain, how much attention or other federal legislation has benefited that state for the past few years, other than funding for the Border Patrol and fencing? Isakson will continue to make breaks when necessary, from this President, his party and others, as well as take the right stand and moral highground on principle, but he is also a longtime believer in the old Reagan credo that Republicans don’t much benefit from attacking each other in public.
Slowed by the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, which Isakson took public in 2013, Georgia’s senior senator is still walking 10 miles each day on his home treadmill to maintain muscle strength and coordination. Though his steps are smaller and a bit slower, his mind remains sharp as ever. His recall for detail, names and faces, figures to the decimal point as well as minor amendments made to pending legislation is legendary. And though some of his critics may occasionally forget his role as architect and builder of the Georgia GOP, calling him a RINO, moderate or worse…Isakson has really never been one to exchange that kind of fire. His political campaigns and commercials have almost always been generally positive and focused on GOP priorities as well as his vision for Georgia and our nation. I will miss those jingles and upbeat ads too. Thank you Johnny.
The bumper of my late model Jeep Liberty proudly holds a bumper sticker in its right hand corner, touting Isakson’s last statewide contest, it says simply “Johnny 2016.” It definitely says something about the place you have reached in life when one word clearly tells folks who you are and what you are asking about… Cher, Farrah, Prince…Johnny. We now know that Johnny won’t be seeking our votes again, though he will always have mine. They don’t make’em like that anymore. And that sticker isn’t coming off the Jeep. Again…thank you Johnny for your service to Georgia and to our nation.