EDITOR’S NOTE — On the day after announcing his retirement from the U.S. Senate, Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson sat down for a wide-ranging interview covering past, present and future politics. The senator in his Cumberland offices discussed his 45-year political career. Isakson, who will leave the Senate Dec. 31, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and recently underwent surgery to remove a growth on his kidney. The question-and-answer interview was edited for length and context.
Q: You’ve amassed a 45-year political career, and we touched on this earlier, but what stands out to you as your greatest accomplishments? On three levels — for you personally, for the state of Georgia and for the nation.
A: Well, for me personally, the only thing I would point out is that... looking back over to 1974, of all the challenges I had, and opponents I had and issue differences I had, I’m still standing. Some of my best friends had been some of my enemies before. I don’t have anything to be ashamed of or apologize for — for anything that I did or said. So that’s what I’m thankful for . And I just appreciate that very much and appreciate the people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and glad that I’m still surviving.
For the state of Georgia. Well, you know, that’s tough for me to say because fortunately there are a lot of them that I worked on. Some that are not very newsworthy or newsy but they’re important.
But there’s no question that when I saved Delta’s pension fund ... four minutes before midnight on August 4th of 2005, that was probably the most impactful thing I ever did. Delta was going bankrupt, going into a structured bankruptcy and we saved every pension for every employee in the state — whether a baggage handler or a teller or a stewardess or anything, not the pilots, but everybody else. They’re now the biggest airline in the world and have 35,000 retired employees on pensions they would’ve lost. That meant a lot to me. ... the president of Delta was in the gallery when I did it, not because he was a plant, but because his company was on the line and we won with only four dissenting votes. That’s the hardest I ever worked on anything because we had no time.
Kate Puzey, the Peace Corps volunteer who was murdered in Benin (city in Nigeria). I saw an article in the (Atlanta) Journal Constitution on the Sunday after she had been killed. I did not know her. I said, gosh, I’m her congressman. So I went to the family funeral and I sat at the back of the church, didn’t know the family, but I just felt like I ought to be there. And when it was over, one of the family members came up to me and asked me who I was. I told them, they said, I thought that was you.
I said, well, here’s my card. If they ever need help, call me. And two weeks later they did. And I helped them get some things from Benin and one thing out of Ghana back to the family and we sat down and had some coffee and cried a little bit over their loss. It was a terrible loss for them. This girl was number one in her class at UVA, number one in her class at Forsyth County High School. She was a superstar and was brutally murdered as a Peace Corps volunteer. Then we passed The Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, which is now known as the Kate Puzey Act. There’ve been a number of women who were sexually abused and now have found retribution or found justice because of that law. And it’s preventing a lot of problems in the future that happened in those countries. So that wasn’t meaningful for me to do.
I’m working on the port of Savannah, the work I’ve done in Metro Atlanta for transportation, which I was on the transportation committee in the house, but in the Senate I’ve had a lot of opportunities on transportation with the port and with Hartsfield(-Jackson airport) to work on.
So we did some things on that and we did some things on funding and education. Like the 1% local option sales tax for school construction that built, I think, $6 billion in classrooms now in Georgia with no bond debt. That’s a pretty good thing, you pay sales tax for cash for your bricks and mortar and that’s a pretty good deal.
Q: How about your work on nuclear power facility Plant Vogtle?
Well that’s my legacy. Just look up Senate Bill 29 somewhere in the annals of history and you will find out all you ever need to know about playing football. Tom Allgood was the Democratic majority leader in the Senate. Roy Barnes was his aide, his deputy, and I was the only person that the Speaker could get to take that bill to the floor. He let me do it because he thought I was expendable ‘cause I was Republican. He knew anybody that did it was going to get killed. And I got down there, we won 93 to 87, as close as you can get, because it’s a 90-90 split in the House. Passed it in the House, but the Senate rejected it.
We got a conference committee agreement. I still remember the motion to this day. I said, Mr Speaker, I want to move (to pass) the House-bill passed amendment to Senate Bill 29. ... And it passed again by one vote. We got on building what’s now the last nuclear reactor in America. When they turn that booger on next year, it’s going to be the last one that’ll be built ... it’s going to be finished pretty soon. Not easily, but it’s going to be finished. That was fun, too.
Q: I think most people know about your public life, but professionally. Northside Realty had $1.4 billion in annual sales and over 1,000 agents and 30 offices.
A: I get too much credit for a lot of things. That’s one of them. We had a great company. It was built and founded by my father and Howard Chatham actually owned it. I got the chance to work there and we did pretty good after I got there. But I took something that was already operating and things changed as IBM moved this way and other people started transferring ... East Cobb became the place to go. I was a 25 to 35 year old salesman who was looking to get my kids educated and a few more years in college and started selling houses and had a wife, and a lot of expenses with my habits, which were politics.
I was really fortunate. We sold a lot of houses and a lot of people still live in them and a lot of them voted for me. It gave me a chance to learn how to take rejection without feeling like I was being rejected.
Q: What about the University of Georgia? Are you going to do anything there?
A: I’m a Dawg until the day is over. God’s blessed me in many ways and UGA is one of them. And I got a lot of friends over there and I love Georgia football. And just so we know, I know they don’t need me on the team, that’s for sure. I can’t fit into the same clothes as those people. They’re the biggest I’ve ever seen. I played high school football, 165 pounds. One leg of those guys today weighs 165 pounds.
But I can’t tell you (about future plans). First of all, when you retire from the Senate … there’s a prohibition against any negotiation or talking about anything that you’re going to do for a year.
I have thought about (what is next), but only to the extent I’m going to do something. I don’t know what it’s going to be. And it may be working at the kitchen at MUST (Ministries), I don’t know, but I’ll do something hopefully valuable ... And I’ll enjoy doing that.