Much has been written about the legacy of Sen. Johnny Isakson as he prepares to step down from his service to our state. It is a mark of the greatness of the man that such a varied chorus of Georgians – including many, many Democrats – have lauded the simple grace of this uniquely humble servant.
Johnny Isakson practically invented the Republican Party in Georgia. He lost and won many races, and is the only Georgian Republican to be a State Legislator and a State Senator and a U.S. Congressman and a U.S. Senator. He has one of the most conservative scores in the entire Senate (84%), has an “A” rating with the NRA, and was declared the “Hero of the Tax Payer” by the Citizens Against Government Waste. But more importantly, he is one of the last leaders on the national stage who has successfully reached across the aisle to get things done. His self-prescribed motto, “I have friends and future friends” not only allows him to create rewarding relationships of mutual respect with people he didn’t necessarily agree with all the time but hearken back to a bygone era when politicians actually attempted to fix the problems they pretend to care about.
A man of dozens of significant accomplishments that most politicians would shout about, Sen. Isakson is so unpretentious that most of you are not aware of them.
His first great feats started on the State School Board where he was – as a Republican – appointed to be Democrat Governor Zell Miller’s chairman. The reforms he set in place thrust Georgia from the worst in the nation on the SAT to above the national average … and the best graduation rates in our state’s history. Always a champion for public education, he instituted a new revenue stream by creating ELOST, providing $6 billion for school construction. But, more importantly, he was the first national leader to pass several school accountability standards, the most recent being the “Every Student Succeeds Act” which demands accountability while removing many federal mandates and returning control back to the states.
Most people do not know that Senator Isakson saved Delta Air Lines, the largest single private employer in Georgia (33,000 employees in the state and 80,000 worldwide).
Delta is doing great right now, but in the early 2000’s it actually went bankrupt and was very nearly bought up by another airline in a hostile takeover to be chopped up and sold into little pieces. Had Sen. Isakson not acted, the gutting of air traffic in the ATL and the $65 billion annual impact and 450,000 jobs at the busiest airport in the world (including my own) would have created havoc throughout the entire state. (If you don’t believe me, look at what happened to the Cincinnati airport.)
The Senator also revitalized the transportation grid of Atlanta and was critical to the expansion of the port of Savannah to become the fourth busiest in America, accounting for another 439,000 jobs and another $1.4 billion yearly economic impact.
Sen. Isakson is the military veteran who turned-around the broken Department of Veteran Affairs. The media hardly reported it, but Sen. Isakson successfully passed the landmark “VA Mission Act” to ensure veterans receive the care they deserve. He also led the expansion of the largest federal increase of funds to the VA in US history, as well as modernize the VA’s record system. He also passed the “VA Accountability and Whistleblower Act” to give the VA the tools it needs to remove bad employees. I challenge you to name a single senator today who has passed such significant legislation.
Any politician would be justifiably proud to claim just one of Sen. Isakson’s many accomplishments. He is so respected in Washington that he is nicknamed “Johnny Two Chairs” because he is the only U.S. Senator who chairs two different committees; Ethics and Veteran’s Affairs. Yet far from being just a “career politician,” Johnny is also a small businessman who turned his tiny real estate company into a $1.4 billion business.
My daughter once worked for Sen. Isakson, and from everything I’ve ever heard or seen of the man, I know him to be a gentleman who epitomizes the elegance of true Southern Charm. A leader who always takes care of his people, Isakson acolytes are almost everywhere, in increasingly important positions all across the state.
Reagan once said he was happy to compromise on 20% if he could get 80% of what he wanted. The Founding Fathers were famous for their compromises, forming a new nation amongst startling different and conflicting interests. A man who sees the world largely, Sen. Isakson never slips into partisan sniping to score cheap political points. He lets his actions – and his accomplishments – speak for themselves.
I completely respect the Senator’s noble decision to step down from office because of his fight against Parkinson’s, yet I mourn that day as a truly great loss to Georgia.
Dave Belton is a Republican from District 112, serving in the Georgia House of Representatives.