ATLANTA – U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., retired this month after 45 years in public service. He leaves Congress as the only Georgian ever to serve in the state House of Representatives, the Georgia Senate, the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. After helping build the state Republican Party as Georgia House minority leader, Isakson went on to serve as chairman of the state Board of Education. In Washington, he spent six years in the House representing a district in Atlanta’s northern suburbs and 14 years in the Senate, including a stint as chairman of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Recently, he looked back on his career in an exclusive interview with Capitol Beat News Service:
Q: What made you decide to enter politics back in 1972, five years into your real estate career?
A: I was active in the real estate business but also in my civic association in a small neighborhood in East Cobb. There were beginning to be a lot of issues dealing with zoning … and there was an incumbent county commissioner up for re-election who had been the proponent of all the multi-family units being proposed at the time. … I never intended to run for anything, certainly not county commission, but I did and did pretty well for not being experienced and not having any money. … I did well enough to whet my appetite and said, ‘If I get a chance, I’ll try this one more time.’ I did two years later for the legislature and won that seat. That year, I was the only Republican to defeat a Democrat in the state of Georgia who was an incumbent. … That’s how I started my career.
Q: You essentially built Georgia’s Republican Party in the ‘70s and ‘80s along with some allies.
A: A lot of people deserve credit for that. I was on the building team, but I was not the builder. … [The late U.S. Sen.] Paul Coverdell and I did a lot of work to get people to come to Saturday morning breakfasts and get enthusiastic about being outnumbered 10 to 1.
Q: How difficult was it in a state Democrats had dominated since Reconstruction?
A: It was easy back then to get attention because the press would settle for anything from us because there weren’t many of us. … As we grew our numbers and got influential enough to start driving issues, for awhile, it worked to our advantage … because they let us state our case without having anybody give the alternative. That went away as we won more seats.
Q: How did you get along with majority Democrats during all those years you spent in the General Assembly as a minority leader?
A: Tom Murphy was the longest serving [state House] speaker in the country at that time. He hated Republicans, had open season on them any time he could find one. … I said, ‘I’m going to see if we can find common ground.’ … In rural Georgia, there were no four-lane highways. We helped [then-Gov.] Joe Frank Harris pay for the GRIP [Governor’s Road Improvement Program]. … All of a sudden, [Democrats] liked the idea of doing something comprehensive. I won a few points that way.
Q: Did you hesitate before jumping into that special election race for Congress in 1999, considering you were looking to succeed such a high-profile politician as Newt Gingrich?
A: That night I was on an airplane to Anaheim, [Calif.] to make a speech to the Realtors Political Action Committee. When I got to the hotel that night, there were 72 messages for me. The first 71 were from my wife. She said, ‘Newt quit and everybody says you ought to run.’ … I’d run statewide three times before and lost. … But I had the name ID. We put together a heck of a campaign in seven weeks and won the seat.
Q: You played a leading role in the No Child Left Behind Act in the House in 2001 and helped improve the law while you were in the Senate. Did that stem from your time as chairman of the state Board of Education?
A: The federal government doesn’t really have a role in education, but it is the first priority of state government. I knew what the state’s problems were and how to account for the money. I had some working knowledge. … [George W.] Bush was the new president and decided he was going to make that a signature issue. He asked me to lead that effort.
Q: You were awarded the inaugural ‘John McCain Service to Country Award’ earlier this year. What does that mean to you in terms of the time you spent in the Senate with John McCain?
A: John was a product of my era, the best we had. He went to Southeast Asia and fought in the worst war America ever fought in. I lost some very good friends in Vietnam. … I’m very close to that whole era. John epitomized it. He was a volunteer. … He wanted to go and not use his father (a Navy admiral) for any preferential placement. … I worked with John when I got elected on issues including immigration and ethics. … What really got me close to him was President Trump went after him after he died. … I got upset and made about a 20-minute speech calling the president out on it. That was no way to treat one of our heroes.
Q: Veterans have been one of your priorities. Looking back, what do you feel were your greatest accomplishments chairing that committee in the Senate?
A: The committee never did much because it was what you call a ‘B’ committee. … But when I got it, I said, ‘We’ve been fooling around with these issues for 10 years. I want to make this thing work for veterans.’ … The Mission Act replaced the Choice Act. A veteran can go to a private doctor or a VA doctor. It makes no difference. … Vets don’t need to be told a doctor is not being paid. … It’s working really well now. I believe last year, they did 1,000 more appointments for veterans than the year before.
Q: The theme of your farewell speech on the Senate floor this month was a plea for bipartisanship. With the toxic atmosphere in Washington, do you believe there’s hope for that?
A: My hope for it is what’s kept me in politics. … If you’re in politics and you do a favor, you get one in return and you remember that. … Three years ago, I pulled a Democrat out of a committee room and got him to switch a vote. Once people know you have the ability to deliver that kind of power, they respect you and will negotiate with you. … In my speech, I tried to get across what happens in the real world and the need to be cooperative.