U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia warned in his farewell speech Tuesday from the Senate floor that the country’s best qualities may be “slipping away” amid deepening partisan divisions in Congress.
Set to retire on Dec. 31, the Republican senior senator took 20 minutes Tuesday to urge colleagues from both political parties to work better together and to avoid defining bipartisanship as when “a Democrat and a Republican talk to each other once in a while.”
More effort is needed, Isakson said, because over his 15 years in the Senate he has seen and heard things more often in recent years in both Congress and the country that “scare me.”
“The best country in the world cannot succumb to crushing itself inwardly if we look the other way from the challenges of life today,” Isakson said. “And the challenges of life today are (that) America’s changing.”
Isakson faced mounting health problems since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2013. He suffered injuries from a fall during the summer and surgery for a cancerous growth from his kidney over summer that spurred his decision to step down. The 74-year old’s health issues took too much of a toll on himself and his family to continue office, he said as he announced his resignation in August.
Isakson’s resignation at year’s end marks the close of a long tenure in state and local politics dating back to the early 1970s. He is the only elected official from Georgia to hold seats in both the state House and Senate and the U.S. House and Senate. He served in the U.S. Senate for three consecutive terms.
As president of Northside Realty, Isakson helped guide the rapid transformation of the Atlanta’s suburban bedroom communities into bustling commercial centers as he built the company his father founded into the largest independent real estate firm in the Southeast.
His resignation prompts the need for a special election next fall to fill the seat, and for Gov. Brian Kemp to appoint a replacement until then. Kemp is expected to announce wealthy Atlanta executive Kelly Loeffler will be Georgia’s next senator at a morning press conference today.
“As we saw on the floor of the Senate today, Isakson is the standard for what it means to be a statesman, gentleman, and servant leader,” Kemp said in a news release sent minutes after the tribute to Isakson wrapped up Tuesday afternoon.
Isakson’s departure forces Georgia Republican leaders to defend two U.S. Senate seats next year as U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Sea Island Republican, has already drawn four Democratic challengers.
Perdue was among many senators who lined up Tuesday to laud Isakson’s years of public service and approach to politics.
“A lot of people in this town know how to talk to stick around,” Perdue said from the Senate floor. “Johnny has shown us how important it is to listen and learn from each other.”
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, praised Isakson’s legislating style as she worked with him to pass bills on childhood education, workforce training and federal support for victims of opioid addiction.
“He understands not everyone is going to have the same ideas,” Murray said during Tuesday’s farewell testimonials. “But he listens to other people, he respects their views.”
Others like U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, a Republican from Delaware, called for more people to emulate Isakson’s brand of collaborative legislating. Coons is the vice chair of the Senate Ethics Committee, which Isakson has chaired since 2015.
“The secret to Johnny’s success is he doesn’t focus on the two-dimensional ways in which you’re different,” Coons said Tuesday. “He focuses on what’s in common.”
That approach showed in Isakson’s close ties with civil rights leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Atlanta Democrat who embraced Isakson in a moving tribute on the Senate floor last month. Speaking Tuesday, Isakson cast the respect he and Lewis share as a good example of the bipartisanship he favors.
“Find a way to find common ground,” Isakson said. “Give it a chance to work, and if it doesn’t, be a future friend.”