While bitter partisanship and fierce ideological battles may define today’s political landscape, former Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson had two categories for people: friends and future friends.

Isakson, a statesman beloved by Republicans and respected by Democrats, champion of veteran’s affairs and public servant for more than four decades, died in his sleep overnight Sunday at the age of 76. 

Former Sen. Johnny Isakson (Credit: GPB.org)

“I never worry about what I’m doing politically or practically in the Senate as long as I think I’m doing what’s right,” he told GPB’s Political Rewind in 2019. “Hopefully my epitaph will say… that he always worked for the best interests of people. As long as that’s the case, I’m happy.”

From Georgia to Washington, D.C., politicians and the public agree that Isakson’s legacy is rooted in helping people.

A statement from Gov. Brian Kemp mourned the loss of Isakson, the only Georgian to serve in both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly and the United States Congress.

“Johnny Isakson personified what it means to be a Georgian,” Kemp said. “Johnny was also a dear friend to Marty, the girls, and me — as he was to so many. He answered the call to public service many times over his career as a state legislator, minority leader in the Georgia House, chair of the State Board of Education, congressman, and finally as senator.”

Isakson stepped down from the U.S. Senate in 2019 due to growing health concerns, including Parkinson’s disease and fractured ribs suffered from a fall.

“I am leaving a job I love because my health challenges are taking their toll on me, my family and my staff,” he said.

In an era where rancorous partisanship has made bipartisan compromise a true rarity, Isakson had a reputation for being a great listener, man of principle and an honest broker when it came to handling politics and policy.

“His work to champion our veterans, deliver disaster relief for Georgia farmers after Hurricane Michael, and always stand up for Georgia’s best interest in the U.S. Senate will live on for generations to come,” Kemp said. “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.”

Before his farewell address to the Senate, a seven-minute video was released including former and current Senate colleagues heaping praise on the “compassionate, honest and bridge-building public servant.”

“He will always be remembered for honesty and integrity, and setting an example of intellectual honesty for a younger generation of people who are going to be our leaders tomorrow,” the late former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn said.

During his farewell speech, Isakson advocated for bipartisanship, noting his friendship with Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who passed in 2020 after a battle with cancer.

“Whether you’re black or white, Republican or Democrat, whatever it might be, find a way to find common ground,” Isakson said. “Give it a chance to work, and if it doesn’t, be a future friend. That’s my slogan… Friends and future friends is what it’s all about … life is a win-win proposition if you’ll do it … but you have to command it no matter what side of the transition you’re on.”

Kemp appointed financial services executive Kelly Loeffler to hold Isakson’s seat, and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock won a special election runoff for the seat in January 2021.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

This story comes to Atlanta Intown/Reporter Newspapers through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Stephen Fowler is an award-winning reporter and photographer for GPB News covering state and local politics.