Johnny Isakson

ATLANTA – Former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson was remembered Thursday as a bipartisan leader in partisan times who believed in doing the right thing regardless of politics.

“I saw the real Johnny up close and personal,” former Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who served with Isakson in the Senate for a decade, said during a memorial service at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church. “The conversation always came down to, ‘We’ve got to do what’s right.’ ”

Isakson died Dec. 19 at age 76 after a six-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. The Republican from Cobb County had retired two years earlier due to Parkinson’s and other health issues.

Isakson, who founded a real estate business, spent 45 years in public service, winning seven straight elections from 1976 through 1988 and 14 of 17 elections overall.

His career included a stint in the Georgia House, where he served as minority leader. After losing the 1990 gubernatorial election to Democrat Zell Miller, he bounced back to win a seat in the state Senate.

Isakson lost in the 1996 Republican primary for U.S. Senate but came back in 1999 to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, succeeding former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Five years later, Isakson was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he became the first Georgia Republican to win three terms. He also is the only Georgian to have served in both chambers of the General Assembly and Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Isakson was known not only for working with Republicans and Democrats to pass legislation but as someone whose compassionate nature drew a lot of friends from both sides of the aisle.

McConnell said he never saw so many senators and staffers from both parties on the Senate floor as the day Isakson gave his farewell speech in December 2019. The same thing happened last September when the Senate restarted the annual Johnny Isakson Barbecue Lunch in their late friend’s honor, he said.

“We all know this is a polarized time. Unity is in short supply,” McConnell said. “[But] the gigantic, diverse Johnny Isakson Fan Club has never failed to pack a room.”

Other speakers at Thursday’s service included Isakson’s two sons and daughter, a longtime friend and neighbor from East Cobb and Senate Chaplain Barry Black, who met Isakson in 2004 and became his prayer partner.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.