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Former Sen. Johnny Isakson, a beloved figure on Capitol Hill, dies at age 76

Former Veterans Affairs and Ethics chairman seemed to know everyone in the Capitol

Former Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has died.
Former Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has died. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Former Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican who was among the most universally beloved senators on Capitol Hill, has died at age 76.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp confirmed Isakson’s death.

Isakson knew the names and stories of many of the folks who work behind the scenes in the Capitol Complex, from elevator and subway operators to food service staff.

When it became known that a longtime short-order cook in the Senate carryout, who was also a decorated military veteran, had died during a 2013 government shutdown, Isakson was among the small group of senators who offered specific memories.

He hosted perhaps the best bipartisan event of the year, bringing Georgia barbecue to lawmakers, staff and — and even lucky members of the press corps.

“It’s said the quickest route to a man’s heart is through his stomach. … When you feed a man BBQ, and you got a tough issue to handle, you got a chance to get that done,” he said on the Senate floor in June 2019, reflecting on 11 years organizing the lunch.

The event became such a hit that, according to Isakson, former GOP Sen. Ted Stevens, who died in 2010, even had some barbecue flown to Alaska during his corruption trial.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spoke to Isakson’s popularity among his colleagues from both sides of the aisle.

“Johnny was one of my very best friends in the Senate. But the amazing thing about him was that at any given time, approximately 98 other Senators felt the same way. 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 Sunday.

“Johnny Isakson liked to help people and liked to get things done,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said in a statement. “I was always impressed by his habit of often addressing groups he was speaking to as, ‘my friends and future friends.’ He was a skilled politician, a great public servant, and a great friend.”

Isakson resigned his Senate seat effective Dec. 31, 2019, for a term that was not set to expire until 2023. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and had an assortment of other medical challenges.

“It goes against every fiber of my being to leave in the middle of my Senate term, but I know it’s the right thing to do on behalf of my state,” he said at the time.

But, that was Isakson. When he knew that there was even a chance he could no longer fulfill his duties, it was time to go. Several years earlier, he had been absent for a time while recovering from back surgeries.

As his Senate tenure concluded, he was chairman of both the Veterans Affairs and Ethics panels.

Isakson, a veteran in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-72, sat on the Veterans Affairs Committee since his arrival in the Senate. He was on the conference committee that finalized the program in a 2014 law revamping delivery of veterans care, in light of reported cover-ups of long wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities.

In 2018, he shepherded an overhaul of the veterans’ health care system, previously called the Veterans Choice Program. The overhaul addressed Isakson’s largest priority as chairman: To fix the backlog of benefit appeals.

The role of Ethics chairman is among the most thankless in all of Washington, especially when the committee’s work involves investigating and sanctioning colleagues.

After service in the state legislature, Isakson’s career in Congress began in the House, when he was elected in a 1999 special election to fill the seat vacated by former Speaker Newt Gingrich. He then was elected to the Senate in 2004, winning an open seat race.

In this 2009 photo, former Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., talked about a mural painted by middle school students from Cobb County, GA, in 2006 that depicts regions of the state.

Before turning to politics, Isakson made his money in the real estate business.

“My father was a Greyhound bus driver, and on the side, he would buy houses, and my mother would fix them up and sell them. We lived in 12 houses the first five years of my life,” Isakson said, according to a 2009 interview.

Isakson also credited his dad, who had not completed high school, for instilling his passion for education. After his older sister died as a young child, his father repeatedly told Isakson he was destined to be the first in the family to attend college.

The elder Isakson bought season tickets to Georgia Tech football games, then deliberately parked 2 miles away so he could walk his son across the campus to the stadium. Isakson’s father would point to the buildings and say, “One day you’re going to go to a school like this.”

Isakson ultimately did become the first in his family to go to college, graduating from the University of Georgia.

Material from CQ Member Profiles was used in this report.

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