As Isakson exits, former colleagues mourn end of an era

By: - December 23, 2019 1:15 am

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, talks with Sen. Johnny Isakson before a group photo to celebrate National Seersucker Day at the U.S. Capitol Building on June 11, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Haspel)

WASHINGTON — Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson and former Democratic congressman Buddy Darden have been political opponents since they met in college. 

They were on different sides of a fraternity divide in student government at the University of Georgia in the 1960s. Later, they were on opposite sides of the aisle as a Republican and Democrat in both the Georgia legislature and the U.S. Congress. 

But despite those differences, Darden says they have always been friends — a sentiment repeated by other Democrats and Republicans who have worked with the retiring senior senator from Georgia.

“We’ve been on opposite sides most of the time, but we have always been congenial and very friendly,” Darden said in an interview this week, describing Isakson as someone with “impeccable character” that he could always talk to and trust. “Frankly, though, Johnny has always had a bipartisan bent.”

The bipartisan bent of Isakson is a common theme when his colleagues speak of him, and an increasingly rare quality in a polarized Washington. As Georgia’s senior senator prepared to exit, Democrats called him a bridge-builder that they could respect and work with across the aisle.

“His name is on most of these bipartisan bills,“ Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said at a hearing this fall in the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, of which Isakson is also a member. “We will all remember the legacy of how we can listen to each other and find solutions and work our way forward.”

After Isakson lost the 1990 governor’s race to Democrat Zell Miller, Miller tapped his former rival to head the state board of education. He later worked with Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy on an education reform bill when they were both in the U.S. House. Isakson negotiated with Murray on an update to the bill when he was in the Senate. 

“We got stuck … So I just stepped back and asked Johnny to work with Patty to see if they could work it out, and they did, because of their respect and trust for each other,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said of the education compromise in a video interview released by Isakson’s office.

While Democrats have praised Isakson for his civility and willingness to work across the aisle, his voting record is solidly on the side of Republicans. 

Isakson publicly criticized President Donald Trump in March 2019, calling Trump’s attacks against the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) “deplorable.” But on policy issues, he’s been a reliable supporter of the president. 

He endorsed Trump and has voted in line with his positions 92% of the time, according to an analysis by political pollsters FiveThirtyEight. 

Isakson has called for research on causes of mass violence, but has an A rating from the National Rifle Association for his voting record in favor of gun rights. He is solidly at the conservative end of the spectrum, according to an analysis of voting records from the website GovTrack.

‘Last of a dying breed’?

As Isakson concludes more than 40 years in elected office, he’s known for his work on education reform, veterans affairs legislation, and funding for various Georgia projects. He also leaves a trail of well-wishes from both sides of the aisle, from lawmakers who say his style of statesmanship is increasingly rare in today’s politics.

“Johnny is the last of the Georgia bipartisan senators. He is the last of a dying breed in Georgia that can be objective about things,” Darden said.

Former Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss said Isakson is a “wonderful human being” who was always ready to work in a bipartisan fashion — an approach that is currently out of fashion.

“Without question, there are more people on the far-right and far-left in both the House and Senate, and it is becoming more and more difficult, obviously, to get things done,” said Chambliss. “We need more Johnnys in the House and Senate.”

Isakson tried to forge relationships and friendships across the aisle. He did so publicly at his annual bipartisan barbecue lunch on Capitol Hill, but also in individual meetings and conversations.

“If all members of the Senate were more like Johnny Isakson, we would not be in the mess we are in right now,” said Max Cleland, a Democrat and former senator from Georgia. “Johnny has a wonderful open mind about things, a heart for service, and he demonstrated that his entire life.”

Isakson announced in August that he would resign at the end of the year, citing health issues. The 74-year-old has Parkinson’s disease and had two other medical incidents last summer — a fall in July and kidney surgery in August. 

His departure means Republicans will have to defend both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats next year. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) is up for re-election and already has four Democratic challengers. 

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Kelly Loeffler, a financial executive and hard-line conservative, to take over Isakson’s seat until the next election. Voters can decide in the November 2020 election if they want her to stay in the seat for the final two years of the term. 

Quid pro quo

Isakson served in the Georgia state legislature from 1976 until 1990, at a time when the Georgia Republican Party was almost nonexistent. When he became the Republican minority leader in 1983, there were just 24 Republicans in the Georgia state House and 156 Democrats. 

He has said that experience of working in an extreme minority shaped him.

“I owe my career to my first two years in politics after I got elected. I learned how really hard it was going to be to do what I wanted to do,” Isakson said in a recent interview with WABE, Atlanta’s public radio station.  

Isakson said he learned to make himself useful to Democrats. He would try to make a trade to try to get a deal done — such as voting with rural representatives when needed and then convincing them to help support funding to create MARTA, Atlanta’s public transit system.

“I legislate as if I was in the minority, not the majority. I always have that kind of attitude because if you’re in the minority you can’t take things for granted things you can if you’re in the majority,” Isakson told WABE. “So you have to work a little harder, be a little nicer, a little more friendly, make something work. It works for me.”

When former Republican congressman Jack Kingston was starting his career in the Georgia state House, he remembers Isakson taking him aside and telling him to always read the bill and look for a way to work with the opposition.

“You can stand up and raise hell and vote ‘no’ but you are not going to get anything done,” Kingston said of Isakson’s advice. “The real way to get things done is to do your homework and study. He has spent four decades doing that.” 

Isakson touts a style of politics that embraces compromise, where both sides get something out of a deal and both also give something up. In his farewell speech on the Senate floor earlier this month, he referred to it as a “quid pro quo,” before correcting himself in light of the partisan fighting that has circled around that phrase during Trump’s impeachment proceedings.

“The best way to get somebody to do something for you, is to do something for them. It’s a quid pro quo — oh, that’s a bad word,” Isakson told his colleagues on the Senate floor. “I am glad I remembered that joke.”

He came to Washington, D.C., in 1999, after winning a special election to fill Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich’s seat in Georgia’s 6th District. 

Isakson frequently reached across the aisle, but he did not always find a compromise. He tried multiple times without success to help broker a deal on immigration reform.

In his final months of office, he promised to devote himself to advancing legislation to deal with gun violence. Isakson’s proposal would have set aside $75 million a year for the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the factors that contribute to mass violence. 

Congress approved a similar measure as part of its budget agreement this month, but it originated from House Democrats. The budget deal includes $25 million for research specifically on gun violence — smaller in budget and scope than Isakson’s proposal.

‘I will come over to meet you, brother’

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) served alongside Isakson in the House and led a tribute to him on the House floor last month. What made Isakson different, he said, was his willingness to listen. 

“Johnny developed a great reputation as a bridge-builder, a man who has strong belief but also willing to work with others to get things done,” Lewis said. 

He recounted a time when Isakson invited him to his office to talk to his staff and when he helped lead a congressional delegation to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the civil rights marches. 

Lewis concluded his remarks, “I will come over to meet you, brother.” Lewis walked across the aisle to Isakson, who had been listening, and the two embraced.

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Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Georgia Recorder.