ATLANTA - Nearly 500 of Georgia’s business and political elite said thanks to former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson Monday, Sept. 27, for more than 40 years spent in public service.
Isakson, a Republican who retired at the end of 2019, suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Monday, Sept. 27’s tribute at the historic Piedmont Driving Club raised about $1 million to benefit The Isakson Initiative, a nonprofit he founded in May to raise awareness and funding for research related to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and related dementia.
The first Georgia politician to ever serve in the state House and Senate, the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate was feted as a leader who took a bipartisan approach toward public policy during an era of increasing polarization between Republicans and Democrats.
“Johnny has always worked to get everyone at the table,” said Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.
“He represents the best our state and nation have to offer,” Gov. Brian Kemp added.
Isakson served in the General Assembly during the 1970s and 1980s as one of its few Republican members. After unsuccessful runs for governor and the U.S. during the 1990s, then-Gov. Roy Barnes appointed him to chair the Georgia Board of Education.
He was elected to the U.S. House in 1999, succeeding former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, then won a seat in the Senate in 2004. Isakson became the first Republican elected statewide to three terms.
Monday, Sept. 27’s luncheon program included both live and recorded tributes from some of Isakson’s former Senate colleagues from both sides of the aisle. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., praised Isakson for using his illness for good and pledged to support Isakson’s fund-raising efforts.
“You’re taking a bad hand that was dealt to you and using it to help other people,” Graham said. “We’re going to fight this illness together.”
“Johnny was my mentor when I came to the Senate more than a decade ago,” added Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who now chairs the Senate Ethics Committee formerly headed by Isakson. “He focused on what we could do together.”
Ralston said Isakson was a key backer of federal funding to deepen Savannah Harbor so the Port of Savannah could accommodate a new generation of containerized cargo ships.
In light of his contributions, Ralston sponsored a resolution this year naming the new bridge on Georgia 307 that crosses over the Mason Mega Rail Yard after Isakson.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo, another former Senate colleague, informed the audience the Johnny Isakson Public Health Research Building on the Atlanta campus of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is due for completion in 2024.
And Kemp announced that the Johnny Isakson Professorship for Parkinson’s Research at the University of Georgia has raised $4.5 million and hired its first research professor.
“We’re proud of the progress that professorship has made in less than two years,” the governor said. “I have no doubt this initiative will bring hope for Parkinson’s patients and their families for years to come.”