Isakson died in his sleep before dawn at his home in Atlanta, his son John Isakson told The Associated Press. He said that although his father had Parkinson’s disease, the cause of death was not immediately apparent.
“He was a great man and I will miss him,” John Isakson said.
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 tax credit for first-time home buyers that he said would help invigorate the struggling housing market. As chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, he worked to expand programs offering more private health care choices for veterans.
Isakson’s famous motto was, “There are two types of people in this world: friends and future friends.” That approach made him exceedingly popular among colleagues.
President Joe Biden, who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Isakson, said in a statement Sunday that he and the late senator “found common ground built on mutual respect for each other and the institutions that govern our nation.”
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, on Sunday referred to Isakson as “one of my very best friends in the Senate.”
“His infectious warmth and charisma, his generosity, and his integrity made Johnny one of the most admired and beloved people in the Capitol,” McConnell said in a statement.
In 2015, while gearing up to seek a third term in the Senate, Isakson disclosed that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a chronic and progressive movement disorder that had left him with a noticeably slower, shuffling gait. Soon after winning reelection in 2016, he underwent a scheduled surgery on his back to address spinal deterioration. He frequently depended on a cane or wheelchair in later years.
In August 2019, not long after fracturing four ribs in a fall at his Washington apartment, Isakson announced he would retire at year’s end with two years remaining in his term.
An Atlanta native, Isakson failed in his first bid for elected office: a seat on the Cobb County Commission in 1974. Two years later, he was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, becoming the only Republican to beat a Democratic incumbent in Georgia the same year Jimmy Carter was elected president. Isakson served 17 years in the state House and Senate. Always in the minority in Georgia’s General Assembly, he helped blaze the path toward the GOP ascendancy of the 2000s, fueled by Atlanta’s suburban boom. By the end of Isakson’s career, some of those same suburbs were swinging back toward Democrats.
Isakson suffered humbling setbacks before ascending to the Senate. In 1990, he lost the race for governor to Democrat Zell Miller. In 1996, Guy Millner defeated him in a Republican primary for Senate before Millner lost to Democrat Max Cleland.
Isakson’s jump to Congress came about in 1998, when U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich decided not to seek reelection. Isakson won a 1999 special election to fill the suburban Atlanta seat.
He finally made it to the U.S. Senate in 2004 when he defeated Democrat Denise Majette with 58 percent of the vote. He served with Georgia senior Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a close friend and classmate from the University of Georgia.
Isakson was viewed as a prohibitive early favorite to succeed Republican Sonny Perdue in the governor’s mansion in 2010. But he opted instead to seek a second term in the Senate. While there, he developed a reputation as a moderate, although he rarely split with his party on key votes.
Isakson graduated from the University of Georgia in 1966 and joined his family-owned company, Northside Realty in Cobb County, a year later. It grew to one of the largest independent residential real estate brokerage companies in the country during his more than 20 years at the helm. Isakson also served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966 to 1972.
He is survived by his wife, Diane, whom he married in 1968; three children and nine grandchildren.