Remembering Ex-Sen. Johnny Isakson: From the Middle of The Road to Power in the Senate

Remembering Ex-Sen. Johnny Isakson: From the Middle of The Road to Power in the Senate Remembering Ex-Sen. Johnny Isakson: From the Middle of The Road to Power in the Senate Former Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) in 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

By John Gizzi | Sunday, 19 December 2021 03:49 PM

When the news came in Sunday that former Sen. Johnny Isakson died at age 76, it was almost an anticlimax. Isakson resigned from the Senate to deal with a growing battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

It was poignant that the Georgian died two weeks after the death of his political hero Bob Dole. Like Dole, Isakson voted a generally conservative line in the U.S. House and Senate (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 92 percent).

But much like the Kansan, Isakson, who also served as Republican leader of the House and Senate, sought to reach out, compromise with Democrats when he could, and sculpt substantive legislation.

"Johnny and I worked side-by-side building the Republican Party in Georgia for 45 years," former Rep. John Linder, R.-GA, recalled to Newsmax.

"He was more moderate than I, but most others were. If this were a sports team he would have been Mr. Inside and I Mr. Outside. He was remarkably gifted at getting to the middle. I was not. His contributions to our state will be enjoyed and remembered for many years."

Following graduation from the University of Georgia and a stint in the Georgia Air National Guard, the young Isakson plunged into the realty business founded by his father Ed. When the elder Isakson resigned as CEO of Northside Realty in 1979, Johnny succeeded him. It was under Johnny’s 22 years at the helm of Northside that it became the largest realty company in the Southeast.

Because of Isakson’s good nature, sense of humor, and skill selling real estate, he took to politics as a duck to water. Beaten for a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1974, he bounced back to win an Atlanta-area seat in 1976 — impressive since the Democratic ticket was led by the Peach State’s favorite son and presidential nominee Jimmy Carter.

Rising to become minority leader, Isakson was known for making compromises with Democratic Gov. Joe Frank Harris.

In 1990, he ran for governor as a moderate Republican against Democratic Lieutenant Governor Zell Miller — "Zig Zag" Zell to Republicans because of changing his views on several issues. Miller called for creating a state lottery to fund public education, while Isakson insisted the voters should decide in a statewide referendum whether to have a lottery. Miller won by 53 to 45 percent.

Undaunted, Isakson won a state senate seat two years later. In 1996, he sought the Republican U.S. Senate nomination and his unapologetic pro-choice stand on abortion came back to bite him. Multi-millionaire businessman Guy Millner ran as a strong pro-life candidate and won the run-off with 53 percent of the vote.

His old foe, Democratic Gov. Miller, made Republican Isakson chairman of the State Board of Education. As veteran Georgia telecommunications lobbyist Leighton Lang put it, "With Johnny Isakson, you forgave a lot. No one could stay mad at him for long."

In 1998, Isakson’s dream of higher office finally came true. After the Republican majority in the House lost ground in the midterm elections, House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced he was resigning from Congress. Isakson jumped in the race for succession, and handily won the primary and subsequent special election for Gingrich’s suburban Atlanta seat.

The Georgian’s knack for hugging the middle and reaching across party lines was evinced on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. There, he helped steer President George W. Bush’s "No Child Left Behind" federal education program to passage with Democratic votes.

Isakson’s support of "No Child" and his stand on abortion were used against him in 2004 when he ran for the Senate — once again, impacted by old enemy Zell Miller, who was by then a senator and retiring. Both Rep. Mac Collins and future presidential hopeful Herman Cain ran to Isakson’s right. But he won the primary without a runoff and went on to win the general election handily.

"In an era of increasing partisanship in Washington, Johnny was known for holding to his core conservative principles while reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats," recalled Phil Kent, CEO of Insider Advantage Georgia and James Magazine.

"After being elected to the Senate, he chaired the Veterans Affairs Committee and worked to better the lot of the nation’s veterans, especially in the area of veterans' benefits and healthcare."

Kent, Linder and so many other Georgia conservatives almost all began their reminiscences of Johnny Isakson by pointing out that he was not as conservative as they were. But then they quickly segued into remembering his good nature, his jokes, and acumen at liking and being liked.

And when the news came that he died, many of them cried.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.