Former Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson is dead at 76

Johnny Isakson
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Former Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a reliable Republican vote respected by many Democrats for working to build consensus behind the scenes, died at home early Sunday. He was 76 and had been living with Parkinson's disease for six years, but his son John Isakson told The Associated Press the cause of death wasn't immediately apparent.

Isakson had built his family's real estate business into one of the South's biggest residential brokerage firms — and himself into a multimillionaire — before he entered politics with an unsuccessful 1974 run for the Georgia House. He won a seat in the chamber two years later, then was elected to the Georgia Senate, before losing races for Georgia governor in 1990 and U.S. Senate in 1996, when he lost the GOP primary. He entered Congress after spending a fortune in the race to replace former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1999, and he won his Senate seat in 2004.

Isakson disclosed his Parkinson's diagnosis before seeking a third term in 2016, but retired at the end of 2019, four years into his six-year term, after he fell and fractured four ribs. He is best known for his work on education and veterans affairs legislation. "As a businessman and a gifted retail politician, Johnny paved the way for the modern Republican Party in Georgia, but he never let partisan politics get in the way of doing what was right," said Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R).

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Isakson "was a transitional figure," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University congressional scholar. "He was the person who set the tone for debate, who was a facilitator rather than a legislative innovator," and his genial "bipartisan brand of politics" stood in stark contrast to Gingrich and Sen. Zell Miller (D), the two lawmakers he replaced. "Isakson saw the increasing diversity in the state," Baker told The Washington Post, "and saw it to his political advantage to adopt much more moderate, inclusive positions."

Isakson is survived by his wife of 53 years, Dianne, plus three children and nine grandchildren.

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