Sen. Johnny Isakson speaks during the 48th Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Monday, January 18, 2016. The five-hour service featured numerous speakers and performances all in memory of Dr. King. JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL
Photo: Jonathan Phillips
Photo: Jonathan Phillips

The Jolt: ‘They don’t come any better.’ Democrats lament Isakson’s retirement

When public officials retire or resign, reporters receive a flood of press releases from others wishing them well. Many are prewritten and even more ring hollow in this divided political climate. 

But scan through the reaction to Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s surprise announcement that he would resign at the end of the year and you get a sense of the void he’ll be leaving once he departs the U.S. Senate. 

From Chris Coons of Delaware: “Johnny has been more than a colleague to me; he’s been a mentor, a legislative partner, a confidant, and a real friend.” 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York: “Not only is Johnny a diligent and successful legislator, he is one of the kindest, most thoughtful senators.” 

“They don't come any better than this humble and tenacious Georgian,” said Montana’s Jon Tester, who served as Isakson’s counterpart on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “It is because of Johnny and his work that veterans in Georgia, Montana, and across this country have better access to the care and benefits they earned.”

And that’s just from Democrats. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called Isakson a “first-rate legislator” with the “highest integrity.” Texas Republican John Cornyn said Isakson is a “wonderful human being,” and even Vice President Mike Pence chimed in with a personalized tweet.

In his 14-plus years in the Senate, Isakson has carved out a niche as a loyal party man. But that reputation as a team player – and personal allegiance to McConnell, whose D.C. office he would often visit unannounced – have helped buy him breathing room to try and cut deals with Democrats, even when that’s put him against the bulk of his party. (See his attempts to overhaul the immigration system in 2006 and 2018, as well as his campaign to end the latest government shutdown, to name a few.) 

» Related: Who could seek Johnny Isakson’s seat in 2020

» Photos: Johnny Isakson through the years

» Related: Isakson’s retirement makes Georgia ‘ground zero’ for politics in 2020

» Timeline: Key moments in Johnny Isakson’s public life

» Related: How will U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s replacement be chosen?

His humility and genteel personality helped win him fans across the aisle. Isakson quickly became a go-to partner for many Democrats looking to cut deals on health care, foreign policy and especially veterans’ affairs, a committee he’s led since 2015.

Many of those friendships were forged during official trips abroad - he once visited Greenland to learn about climate change with California Democrat Barbara Boxer, who became a great admirer of his - and annual barbecue luncheons on Capitol Hill. He’s held 11 so far, trucking up ribs, baked beans and coleslaw from various Georgia eateries each summer.  

As Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin put it on Wednesday: “He gathered warring senators for his annual Georgia barbecue lunch and our differences disappeared slathered in sauce.”

Even Isakson’s allies acknowledge that he occupies increasingly lonely political turf in Washington: a conservative always ready to cut a deal. Is there anyone in Georgia who’s willing and able to fill that niche? 

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The last time Georgia held a federal special election, 18 candidates piled into the free-for-all race for the 6th Congressional District - a handful of Democrats, a slew of Republicans.

Democrat Jon Ossoff came within a whisker of winning that race outright in the first round of voting, then lost the head-to-head matchup with Republican Karen Handel by 4 percentage points. 

For some Republicans, Ossoff’s near-miss was a call to action. A few months later, then-state Sen. Josh McKoon introduced legislation that would create party primaries for special elections.

Most Republicans voted for it. All Democrats voted against it. The measure sailed through the Senate, stalled in the House, and was not revived this year. 

That means next year’s race to succeed Johnny Isakson will unfold in similar fashion: Candidates of all parties will lump into the same election, followed by a January runoff for the top two finishers if none get a majority of the vote.

That brings risk and reward for ruling GOP. A jumbled Democratic field could help the Republican incumbent, whoever he or she may be, possibly win the race outright. But it could also weaken the candidate, particularly if other GOP candidates unimpressed with Gov. Brian Kemp’s selection jump in. 

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Keep an eye on this: Our AJC colleague Tim Tucker was at a conference Wednesday featuring lawmakers and sports executives exploring new ways to nab major events including the World Cup. 

Here’s the passage of his story that could have big implications for the legislative session:

A portion of the Atlanta hotel-motel tax designated for bringing major events to the city covered $16 million of the cost of hosting the Super Bowl in February and will cover $8.5 million of the cost of hosting next year’s Final Four. To host the World Cup and other major sports events in the future, local sports and tourism officials hope to secure an additional public funding source.

“The challenge moving ahead is that costs are continuing to rise,” Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau president and CEO William Pate said at Wednesday’s event, hosted by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Atlanta Sports Council. “We need a companion financial piece to work with the (hotel-motel tax) so we can fund these opportunities.” 

That issue is expected to come up in next year’s session of the Georgia Legislature.

Hmmm … what could that entail? Lawmakers seem most likely to model the legislation on three other states that have adopted similar plans: Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Here are some of the options floating out there:

— Legislation that would allocate public funding for maintaining sports facilities. 

— Legislation that would specifically recoup the tax revenue from a public sporting event and keep it isolated to re-spend on other major public sport events. 

— Legislation that would extend or make permanent sales tax exemptions on tickets to major sporting events. 

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Funeral services for Robert E. “Robbie” Rivers Jr., the longtime former clerk of the state House of Representatives, will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the First Baptist Church of Bremen, at 331 Pacific Ave., Bremen, Ga. 30110.

Visitation will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. today at the church. Hightower Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

Rivers,known for his deep knowledge and calming influence under both Democratic and Republican leadership, died Tuesday at age 68. Rivers served as the clerk for more than 20 years until his retirement in 2013, responsible for managing thousands of bills, amendments and voting records.

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We’ve given you a cheat sheet of some of the top candidates in the race for Johnny Isakson’s seat. Much maneuvering is afoot. 

Kristin Oblander, a veteran Democratic operative, tweeted late last night: “Stay tuned! The best candidate in this race has yet to announce.” 

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