Sen. Johnny Isakson (R)
Elected: 2004, term expires 2010, 1st term.
Born: Dec. 28, 1944, Atlanta .
Education: U. of GA, B.B.A. 1966.
Family: Married (Dianne); 3 children.
Military career: GA Air Natl. Guard, 1966-72.
Elected office: GA House of Reps., 1976-90, Repub. ldr., 1983-90; GA Senate, 1993-96; U.S. House of Reps., 1999-2004.
Professional Career: Northside Realty, 1967-99, Pres., 1979-99; Co-chair, Dole GA presidential campaign, 1988, 1996; Chmn., GA Board of Ed., 1997.
Johnny Isakson, a Republican, was elected Georgia’s junior senator in 2004. Isakson grew up outside Atlanta, in south Fulton County. His father drove a Greyhound bus, and his parents bought old houses, renovated them, and sold them for a profit. Isakson graduated from the University of Georgia and served in the Air National Guard. He went to work for Northside Realty in 1967 and eventually became president of the firm. He volunteered for Republican Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964 and for President Nixon’s in 1972. In 1974, he ran for the state House and lost. In 1976, he ran again and won, and in 1983 became minority leader. He ran for governor in 1990, losing 53%-45% to Democrat Zell Miller. Two years later, he was elected to the state Senate. In 1996, he ran statewide again and lost the Republican runoff for U.S. senator to self-financing businessman Guy Millner, who lost in November to Democrat Max Cleland 49%-48%. In December 1996, Gov. Miller appointed Isakson head of the state board of education. His partisan political career seemed over, but it was revived by two timely retirements.
|Johnny Isakson (R)||1,864,202||(58%)||($8,038,200)|
|Denise Majette (D)||1,287,690||(40%)||($2,391,248)|
|Johnny Isakson (R)||346,670||(53%)|
|Herman Cain (R)||170,370||(26%)|
|Mac Collins (R)||133,952||(21%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 House (80%), 2000 House (75%), 1999 House (65%)
In November 1998, Newt Gingrich of Georgia announced that he was stepping down as speaker of the U.S. House and that he would resign his seat in Congress. That opened up a vacancy in the heavily Republican 6th District, which included much of Atlanta’s northern suburbs plus the affluent Buckhead neighborhood. Isakson was by far the best-known of the six candidates in the February 1999 nonpartisan election. He raised $1 million and spent $500,000 of his own money. He won the seat with 65% of the vote. In the House, Isakson served on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he pushed for a rapid-transit line for the overburdened Georgia 400 corridor. On the Education and the Workforce Committee, he took a leading role in negotiations on President Bush’s signature education law, the No Child Left Behind Act, which tied federal funds for schools to test performance. He added a provision requiring that 25% of technology funds be used for teacher classroom training.
Isakson passed up a chance to run against Cleland in 2002. But the state’s other Senate seat came open in 2004 when Zell Miller, who by then had moved from governor to senator, announced he would retire after just one term. Isakson decided to run for the seat. He had two serious competitors in the Republican primary: Herman Cain, who grew up in a black neighborhood in Atlanta and, starting from low-level jobs, became the owner of Omaha-based Godfather’s Pizza; and Rep. Mac Collins, whose district included the southern edge of metro Atlanta. Cain and Collins were both solid conservatives and abortion-rights opponents, and they made abortion a major issue. Isakson also was an opponent of abortion, but he had voted against a law preventing the use of foreign-aid money to fund abortions overseas and had voted for allowing servicewomen to have abortions at their own expense in military hospitals. In the 1996 Senate primary, he had irked religious conservatives by saying, “I will not vote to amend the Constitution to make criminals of women and their doctors. I trust my wife, my daughter, and the women of Georgia to make the right choices.” Collins called him “a certified moderate,” and Cain, in a television spot, said, “There’s a big difference between me and Johnny Isakson. And it’s not just the color of our eyes.” Cain also backed a consumption tax and private investment accounts in Social Security; Collins criticized Isakson for favoring an extension of the date for the turnover of sovereignty in Iraq. Isakson called for staying the course in Iraq and for tax reform. With his business contacts, Isakson raised $5.5 million for the primary; Cain spent $3 million, much of it his own money, and Collins $1.9 million. Many observers thought the race would end with a runoff. But Isakson got 53% of the vote to 26% for Cain and 21% for Collins. He won 55% in metro Atlanta and 52% in the rest of the state.
This was the first state primary in which more Georgians chose the Republican ballot (650,000) than the Democratic (625,000) one. Democrats had a hard time finding a candidate for a seat held by a Democrat, Miller, albeit one who usually voted with Senate Republicans and supported Bush for re-election. The Democratic race came down to two late-entering candidates, 4th District Rep. Denise Majette and businessman Cliff Oxford. In the primary, Majette had served just one term after her upset victory over Cynthia McKinney in the 2002 primary, and she had a solidly liberal voting record. Oxford was accused of spousal abuse by a former wife. He spent $1 million of his own money. Majette led 41%-21%, and in the August runoff, she won 59%-41%. In both contests, she had big leads in metro Atlanta but ran behind in the rest of the state, not a good harbinger for November.
In the general election campaign, Isakson ran positive ads. In the last two weeks, he attacked Majette’s liberal voting record, including her vote against an $87 billion spending bill for Iraq. Majette criticized Isakson for undercutting Bush’s education reforms by not voting to fully fund them. Isakson won 58%-40%, almost the same margin by which Bush beat John Kerry in the state. Majette carried only 19 of 159 counties, including Atlanta’s Fulton County and two black-majority counties in metro Atlanta.
Isakson has a conservative voting record in the Senate. On the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, he worked actively on pension reform, with the chief goal of advocating the interests of Delta Airlines, which was bankrupt and had huge pension obligations to its workers. Isakson sponsored a proposal to give the airlines additional time beyond the limits set in the bill to make payments to cover the liabilities of their defined-benefit plans. In 2005, the Senate passed a pension-reform measure that included Isakson’s amendment to give the airlines 20 additional years to meet their obligations. House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, who had been Isakson’s ally, countered that he opposed “any industry-specific relief.” Negotiations between the House and Senate dragged on until August 2006. The final version gave Delta and Northwest 17 years to amortize their pension payments, while American and Continental got only 10 years. “The winners are tens of thousands of employees in the airline industry,” Isakson said, and he received much of the credit for the final deal.
On many issues, Isakson works closely with Georgia colleague Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican whom he has known since their days as classmates at the University of Georgia. Although Isakson opposed the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill in 2006, he and Chambliss worked with a bipartisan group of senators in 2007 on a bill including a path to legalization for illegal workers, a guest worker program, and tougher enforcement. Isakson sponsored a “trigger” provision that would delay legalization measures until enforcement goals were met. Nonetheless, he and Chambliss were booed by anti-illegal-immigration hardliners at the May 2007 Republican state convention. In June, when Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid brought the bill to the floor, Isakson and Chambliss said they would vote against allowing it to go forward unless a separate appropriation boosting border security was passed.
Isakson supported the Bush administration on Iraq war policy. He voted against the Democrats’ proposed expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in August 2007, despite Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue’s support because, he said, some states were using the program to insure adults and some planned to extend eligibility up to the $80,000 annual income level. He and Chambliss stood together in September 2008 in supporting the “Gang of 10” bipartisan energy bill that was opposed by many conservatives.
With Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, he co-sponsored a bill to finance interstate high-speed rail projects, specifically supporting such connections on the route from Birmingham to Washington, which runs through Atlanta. When housing prices sagged in 2007, he recalled the stimulative effect of a $2,000 homebuyers’ tax credit in 1975 and proposed a $15,000 tax credit for buyers of homes within a one-year time period. In February 2009, the Senate unanimously passed his $15,000 credit as part of the economic stimulus bill. Also in early 2009, he and Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota called for setting up a commission like the 9/11 commission to examine the collapse of the financial system.
In 2008, it was widely reported that Isakson was thinking about running for governor in 2010, when Perdue would be term-limited. But in May 2008, he told his staff that he would seek re-election to the Senate.