Johnny Isakson, Georgia’s power broker in U.S. Senate, heads to exit

Congressional leaders were racing to avert a government shutdown in December 2015 when a member of U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s staff spotted something troublesome.

The final spending agreement passed by the House included language that possibly could have tipped the balance unfavorably for Georgia in its long-running water wars with Alabama and Florida.

Isakson summoned members of the state's congressional delegation for an emergency meeting, where he persuaded them to withhold their votes for the must-pass funding measure.

The provision "would have just strangled Georgia," Isakson said in a recent interview. He marched the Georgia congressmen to the office of then-Speaker Paul Ryan and convinced party leaders to strike the language in exchange for the delegation's eleventh-hour support.

It was consummate Johnny Isakson, his supporters say.

For years, Isakson has been state leaders' go-to power broker whenever Georgia needed to look after its parochial interests in Washington. And, when the three-term Republican steps down at the end of this month, ending a 45-year career in state and national politics, Georgia will lose its most seasoned and respected guardian of the state's priorities, those supporters say.

Isakson has served as the backstop whenever prized programs were threatened and needed a lifeline from Capitol Hill. Using skills from a seemingly bygone era, he leveraged his close relationships with Democrats and GOP leaders alike to extend $800 million in federal tax credits for Southern Company's nuclear power expansion at Plant Vogtle and cut a deal on funding for the state's top economic development project at the Savannah port.

“He was the first one I would call in Washington,” said former Gov. Nathan Deal, who served alongside Isakson in Congress for more than a decade. “He was always on top of the issues and worked diligently to try and help the state in whatever came before the U.S. Senate and the Congress as a whole.”

Now, it’s unclear who — if anyone — will be able fill the void.

Georgia’s next senior-most Republican arrived in Congress only in 2010, and the delegation’s Democrats do not have much pull with leaders outside their party.

Delta pensions

Isakson honed his reputation as a champion for Georgia’s interests shortly after arriving in the Senate in 2005.

He was less than a year into his first term when Delta Air Lines filed for bankruptcy, leaving the pension plans for some 91,000 Georgians on the line. Isakson got to work on legislation allowing Delta and Northwest Airlines, another ailing carrier, to stretch out payments on their pension plans.

The issue was a legislative minefield. Isakson was a freshman with little clout in the seniority-driven Senate, and President George W. Bush and powerful congressional leaders were opposed to special carve-outs for airlines as part of a broader pension overhaul.

Isakson spent months working the issue, taking the unusual step of sitting through closed-door House-Senate meetings, despite not being a member of the negotiating committee. In the hours before the vote, Isakson met one by one with critics urging them to drop their opposition.

The final bill, which included his language, sailed through the Senate 93 to 5.

“It was the happiest day of my life,” he said.

Passage of the pension legislation was a pivotal moment for Isakson. It helped him earn a reputation as a savvy dealmaker, a skill he developed selling real estate in Atlanta and working as GOP leader in the Georgia House at a time when Democrats held all levers of power. He also served stints in the state Senate and U.S. House.

Johnny Isakson gives a thumbs up to a crowd gathered at Marietta Square on Nov. 11, 1998, where he announced he would run for the U.S. House seat being vacated by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. (PHOTO BY CELINE BUFKIN/STAFF)

Cross-aisle relationships

There was a mantra Isakson adopted and quickly instilled in his staff. There are only two types of people in his world — friends and future friends.

He quickly became a favorite negotiating partner for Democrats. When then-President Barack Obama wanted to break the ice with congressional Republicans in 2013, he called Isakson to help him convene a dinner.

Those cross-aisle relationships helped Isakson secure victories for his priorities. In 2015, he championed legislation that provided compensation to U.S. hostages held in Iran at the end of the Carter administrationIn 2011, he helped revamp U.S. Peace Corps policies that failed to prevent the murder of Kate Puzey, a Cumming volunteer in Benin.

His openness to working with Democrats also prompted backlash from some Georgia conservatives who deemed him a “RINO” - Republican in Name Only.

"People want somebody who will stand and fight for their principles," Atlanta Tea Party co-founder Debbie Dooley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2013. "They want a Navy SEAL representing them. They don't want Barney Fife."

At other times, Isakson was criticized for being too friendly to home-state businesses. One national newspaper dubbed Isakson "the senator from Delta" for his work on the pension bill, and he attracted attention last year for contacting federal agencies on behalf of Parker "Pete" Petit, a longtime donor who headed the Marietta biopharma company MiMedx and was later criminally charged with accounting fraud. An Isakson spokeswoman said the senator treated Petit's matter the same as he did all constituent requests and insisted he did nothing inappropriate.

Isakson defends his approach to politics. And he describes his friendship with his former Senate colleague Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., his opposite in ideology and demeanor, as “probably the great story of my career in Washington.”

From 2007 until 2015, Boxer was the chairwoman of the powerful Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which has jurisdiction over water policy. The duo forged a rapport after spending countless hours together as leaders of the Ethics Committee.

That friendship paid dividends in Georgia’s fights with Alabama and Florida over river water use.

“He had to make a persuasive case,” recounted Boxer, who retired in 2016. “But I definitely trusted his explanation of the issue because I knew he was an honest broker.”

The bridge-building, however, wasn’t always a success.

Isakson's multiple attempts to negotiate sweeping immigration legislation fell apart, and a perennial effort to extend the federal budgeting process from one year to two hasn't advanced.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson speaks to the congregation at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Dec. 8, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Trump factor

Over the past several years, some of Isakson's most consequential votes have toed the party line and enraged Democrats. He supported Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's maneuver to deny a hearing to Obama's final Supreme Court nominee; backed GOP efforts to chip away at the Senate filibuster; and opted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the high court.

Like all of his Republican colleagues, Isakson’s last three years in Washington were shaped by the priorities of President Donald Trump.

Isakson would, at times, reprimand Trump for his treatment of the late U.S. Sen. John McCain and his comments following a white supremacist rally in Virginia. The senator used his out-sized influence as chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee to quietly kill the nomination of White House physician Ronny Jackson to head the VA after a swirl of scandalous allegations surfaced.

At the same time, Isakson voted with the president 92% of the time, according to a tally from the political analysis blog FiveThirtyEight, and worked closely with the White House on nominations and VA legislation.

The GOP’s broader fealty to Trump at times complicated Isakson’s efforts to advocate for Georgia interests.

For the first half of 2019, Isakson and most Georgia Republicans declined to publicly buck the White House to speed passage of emergency money for Hurricane Michael victims as Trump locked horns with Democrats over aid for Puerto Rico.

Isakson, who is retiring because of declining health, spent his last weeks in the Senate making the case for bipartisanship. Many of his colleagues on Capitol Hill and Georgia concurred with the sentiment.

“We obviously are of different parties and don’t agree on everything, but I think the beauty of our relationship is that we come together for the common good of our communities,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, citing their work on infrastructure, transportation and affordable housing.

Some of Isakson's closest allies, however, acknowledge that this polarized moment has deemed the Republican's backslapping style of politics out of vogue.

Still, Isakson said he expects there will “be lots more Johnny Isaksons.”

“I just hope what everybody will do,” he said, “is look beyond the pettiness of today’s politics … to try and bring us back to some even keel, where we can disagree amicably and agree aptly and solve problems rather than create them.”

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