Johnny Isakson, a sociable Georgia Republican politician who rose to the rank of Senator from the ranks of the state legislature and is known to be an effective behind-the-scenes consensus-maker, passed away on Sunday. He was 76.

Isakson’s son, John Isakson, told The Associated Press that his father died in his sleep at his Atlanta home before sunrise. John Isakson said that while his father had Parkinson’s disease, the cause of death was not immediately apparent.

“He was a great man and I’ll miss him,” said John Isakson.

Johnny Isakson, whose real estate business made him a millionaire, spent more than four decades in Georgia political life. In the Senate, he was the architect of a popular first-time home buyer tax break that he said would help revitalize the troubled housing market. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, he worked to expand programs to provide veterans with more private health care options.

Isakson’s famous motto was, “There are two kinds of people in this world: friends and future friends.” This approach made him extremely popular with colleagues.

Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Met with his staff in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington on December 2, 2019. (AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite, file)

“Johnny was one of my best friends in the Senate,” said Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell on Sunday. “But the amazing thing about him was that at any given time about 98 other senators felt the same way. His infectious warmth and charisma, generosity, and integrity made Johnny one of the most admired and loved people in the Capitol.”


In 2015, while preparing for a third term in the Senate, Isakson announced he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a chronic and progressive movement disorder that had made him take a noticeably slower, shuffling gait. Shortly after his re-election in 2016, he underwent scheduled surgery on his back to treat the deteriorating spine. In later years he was often dependent on a walking stick or wheelchair.

In August 2019, not long after breaking four ribs in a fall in his Washington apartment, Isakson announced that he would be retiring at the end of the year with two years remaining.

In a farewell speech in the Senate, he advocated non-partisanship at a time of bitter divisions between Republicans and Democrats. He cited his long friendship with US MP John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and civil rights activist, as an example of two men willing to put the party aside to work on common problems.

“Let’s solve the problem and then see what happens,” said Isakson. “Most of the people who scold people and point their fingers are people who don’t have a solution themselves.”

Lewis, who died last year, greeted Isakson at the house in 2019, saying, “We have always found a way to get along and do the work people deserve.”

After the speech, Lewis went over to hug a hobbling Isakson and said, “I’ll meet you, brother.”


Atlanta-born Isakson failed his first run for an elected office: a seat on the Cobb County Commission in 1974. Two years later he was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives and was the only Republican to defeat a Democratic incumbent in Georgia Jimmy Carter was elected president that same year. Isakson served in the House and Senate for 17 years. Always in the minority in the Georgia General Assembly, he helped pave the way for the rise of the GOP in the 2000s, fueled by the Atlanta suburban boom. At the end of Isakson’s career, some of these suburbs turned back to the Democrats.

“As a businessman and a gifted retail politician, Johnny paved the way for the modern Georgia Republican Party, but he has never let partisan politics stop him from doing the right thing,” said Brian Kemp, Georgia governor.

Isakson suffered humiliating setbacks before advancing to the Senate. In 1990 he lost the race for governor to the Democrats Zell Miller. In 1996, Guy Millner defeated him in a Republican Senate primary before Millner lost to Democrat Max Cleland.

In this February 14, 2019 photo taken, Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Chaired a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington.

In this February 14, 2019 photo taken, Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Chaired a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington.
(AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Many observers cited the loss that Isakson was not tough enough on the abortion. In the primary, Isakson ran a television ad saying that while he opposed government funding or promoting abortions, he would “not vote to amend the constitution to turn women and their doctors into criminals” .

“I trust my wife, daughter, and the Georgia women that they will make the right choices,” he said.

He later changed his mind on the controversial issue.

Isakson’s jump into Congress came in 1998 when the US House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich decided not to run again. Isakson won a special election in 1999 to fill the suburban Atlanta seat.


He finally made it to the US Senate in 2004 when he defeated Democrat Denise Majette with 58% of the vote. He served with Georgia Senior Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a close friend and classmate from the University of Georgia.

Isakson was seen as an unaffordable early favorite to succeed Republican Sonny Perdue at the governor’s mansion in 2010. But he opted for a second term in the Senate instead. There he made a reputation for himself as a moderate, although he seldom parted with his party on important voices.

He was a leading negotiator in 2007 on the immigration law, which President George W. Bush supported but eventually gave up after encountering strong opposition from the right. Chambliss and Isakson were booed at a Georgia Republican Party convention earlier that year for their immigration policies.

Isakson supported limited school vouchers and played an important role in drawing up Bush’s signature education plan, the No Child Left Behind Act. He also called for an unsuccessful draft compromise on the politically charged issue of stem cell research, which would have expanded research funding while ensuring that human embryos would not be harmed.

In this February 14, 2019 file photo, Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Is flanked by Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., Left, and Senator David Perdue, R-Ga., Right, on Capitol Hill in Washington .

In this February 14, 2019 file photo, Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Is flanked by Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., Left, and Senator David Perdue, R-Ga., Right, on Capitol Hill in Washington .
(AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite)

This deal-making approach has fallen out of favor with many voters, but Isakson’s ancestry remains present in Georgian politics. Attorney General Chris Carr was the former senator’s chief of staff. “As a young man who was just getting into politics, I wanted to be like Johnny Isakson,” Carr said on Sunday.

Georgia Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock said “all of Georgia” is mourning Isakson’s death. Warnock, who took over Isakson’s old seat after defeating Republican Kelly Loeffler in a January runoff election, had a special connection with Isakson, who attended an annual service in honor of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Ebenezer Baptist Church attended in Atlanta. The pulpit of the church was that of King and later became that of Warnock. Warnock has also carried on Isakson’s tradition of an annual barbecue lunch for all senators.


Isakson’s “public service model is an example to future generations of leaders of how to stand by principle and make progress while governing with compassion and a heart for compromise,” Warnock said on Sunday.

Isakson graduated from the University of Georgia in 1966 and joined his family business, Northside Realty in Cobb County a year later. During his more than 20-year tenure, the company has grown to become one of the largest independent residential real estate agents in the country. Isakson also served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966 to 1972.

He leaves behind his wife Diane, whom he married in 1968; three children and nine grandchildren.