Geographically and otherwise, Johnny Isakson and I shared a similar predicament in the mid-1990s. Both of us were in exile.
I had been dispatched to our bureau in Cobb County to reflect upon how I might better satisfy my superiors. Isakson had just lost his second statewide race – this time failing to make it out of a GOP primary for U.S. Senate.
He had been turned away by the Georgia Republican party he’d helped create. “I was finished,” Isakson remembered.
Isakson’s escape from exile is the story with significance – I mention my parallel condition only because, at the time, it allowed me to better recognize his.
Georgia political history turned on his unlikely resurrection. It is why the nation took notice on Wednesday, when Senator Isakson – struggling with Parkinson’s disease, broken ribs, a torn rotator cuff and a malignant growth on his kidney — announced that his 45-year career in politics would end on Dec. 31.
Twenty-four hours after that decision, we were in his metro Atlanta office. Just me, Isakson and five longtime — and very protective — staffers and advisors. We talked about the future of his Republican party, and his priorities for his remaining time in office. “I’m not counting, but four months and two days,” Isakson said.
But we spent most of our time talking about events two decades old.
Isakson’s first statewide defeat came in a 1990 race for governor. He was the Republican nominee. Zell Miller was the Democrat. It was a nasty affair. The nadir was an October debate at The Temple, the historic synagogue in Atlanta.
Miller stunned Isakson by bringing up a 1971 federal finding of racial discrimination against Northside Realty — a company then run by Isakson’s father. (The son had become president in 1979.) The attack drove the Republican close to tears. "You can take on anybody you want to, but don’t you try to take a low shot at my daddy,” Isakson replied.
Miller could be a ruthless soul.
Isakson’s second defeat came in 1996, overshadowed by the arrival of the Olympic Games in Atlanta. U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn was retiring, and Isakson had made it into a Republican primary runoff against businessman Guy Milner, a wealthy self-funder.
“We were outspent seven-to-one during the Olympics,” Isakson began. “We bought two spots on the closing ceremonies. They were $20,000 each. That’s tough, when you’re raising it one penny at a time and you’ve got an opponent who’s writing $10,000 checks.”
Isakson lost the runoff by 14,000 votes and considered himself done. Then December arrived.
“I was sitting in my Northside Realty office, a twice-defeated candidate for governor and Senate, two statewide races,” Isakson said. “The phone rang. Joyce came in and said, ‘The governor’s on the phone.’ I said, ‘Governor who?’”
Between Isakson’s two defeats, Miller had won re-election – just barely. More important, Linda Schrenko, the first Republican state school superintendent, had also been elected.
A state school superintendent has oversight of Georgia’s educational bureaucracy – and is somewhat answerable to a gubernatorially appointed state Board of Education. Yet the governor controls all educational spending by the state.
Miller and Schrenko began mauling each other like a pair of territorial cougars. The situation was spinning out of control, and the man who had once dissed Johnny Isakson’s daddy needed help.
“He said, ‘Johnny, I fired the state Board of Education last night. I want to name you chairman and want you to take that thing over and clean that thing up down there,” Isakson remembered. “I can’t deal with Schrenko, and I think you can.’
“I’m sitting there thinking, where is the trick in all this? I didn’t believe in all that for one second,” the senator said.
Isakson managed to defer his decision through the weekend. He was back on the phone with the governor on Monday. The state school board had 11 members who elected the chairman from their number. Isakson said he would need allies.
Miller told him to meet him at the Governor’s Mansion. Now.
“We sat there for two hours, calling people. We got Larry Thompson out of a trial in Michigan,” Isakson said. Thompson was a former U.S. attorney, and an African-American Republican.
Miller deferred to Isakson on all but one spot. The governor wanted Barbara Archibald, an Athens teacher, on the board. She just happened to be the sister of Michael Thurmond, the future DeKalb County CEO — who was then a member of the Miller administration.
The new school board was an amazing creation.
“It was all my fraternity brothers and friends who supported me against Zell [in 1990]. And here I had the governor, in the Governor’s Mansion, on his phone, calling my supporters to ask them if he could appoint them to the state school board to help me,” Isakson said. “You talk about a day that was unreal.”
When the last board member had been selected, Isakson tried to leave. Miller stopped him. While they had been recruiting on the second floor of the mansion, the governor had quietly summoned the state press corps to the first floor – to announce the steamrolling.
The two former foes walked into the room together. Isakson said he’d never enjoyed seeing so many blank faces at once. “It was deathly quiet,” the senator said.
Isakson’s chairmanship lasted two years. His mediation between Miller and Schrenko succeeded. Previous years in the state House and state Senate paid dividends. “What of course happened was, when you think you’re finished, and you don’t have all the pressures of trying to think of every political angle, you do a lot better,” Isakson said.
We should mention that Schrenko – “We got to know each other casually,” Isakson said – would plead guilty in 2006 to defrauding the federal government and money laundering. She was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The experience brought Isakson back into the public eye.
In late 1998, U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose brash style had conflicted with Isakson’s smoother demeanor over the years, resigned his seat after a poor Republican showing in the general election.
Isakson, his confidence renewed, entered the special election to replace Gingrich that February, and won without a runoff.
“In a span of three or four years, the guy who beat me for governor appointed me chairman of the state board of education, and the guy who I had the most difficulty with in the party, Newt — I replaced him,” Isakson marveled. Gingrich even endorsed him.
The story has one more turn, involving a pound cake.
Zell Miller had moved from the Governor’s Mansion to the U.S. Senate. And it was December again, in 2003.
“At Christmas, I make pound cakes from my mother’s recipe. I wanted to go see Zell,” said Isakson, at the time the congressman from the Sixth District. “I got in my pick-up truck and drove to north Georgia on a snowy Saturday morning.”
Miller’s wife answered the door at Young Harris. “I said, ‘Shirley, I made you a pound cake. She knew something was up,” he said.
Isakson told Miller he was interested in running for the U.S. Senate the next year, but only if Miller decided not to. “He said, ‘Get your running shoes on.’ I put my running shoes on, and he ate some pound cake,” Isakson said.
Miller announced that he would not seek another term on Jan. 15, 2004. Isakson announced his candidacy for the seat 15 minutes later.
Nearly two months’ advance warning was “the most valuable time you could ever have,” Isakson acknowledged Thursday. A quick fundraiser, already in the works, generated $1.1 million – providing Isakson with an important leg up, and he replaced Miller in the U.S. Senate.
The pound cake had cost $8.90, Isakson estimated — eggs, flour, and sugar. So the return on investment was significant.
And that is how Johnny Isakson escaped his time in purgatory. And how the man who had attacked his father “died one of my best friends,” he concluded.