ATLANTA — On the U.S. Senate floor in Washington on Tuesday, Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson said his goodbyes to fellow politicians — both Republican and Democrat — with a promise.
“I will always be there for you,” he said.
The political veteran addressed the Senate with personal remarks on his retirement by thanking his colleague and friend, U.S. Rep. John. Lewis, and imploring lawmakers with a message of bipartisanship.
"Bipartisan doesn't mean a Democrat and Republican talk to each other every once a while,” Isakson said, “it means that two people come together, probably have a lot of differences, but they find a way to get to the end of the trail where there's a possibility of a solution."
Isakson has long been upheld as the ultimate example of bipartisanship by members on both sides of the aisle.
He has had a political career spanning 40 years in Georgia politics. In 2013, Isakson was diagnosed with Parkinson's, the chronic disease that affects motor functions. He disclosed his diagnosis in 2015, but continued his Senate career. He won a third term in 2016 and would have been up for reelection in 2022.
Gov. Brian Kemp is set to announce his replacement on Wednesday. The replacement will have to defend the appointment in a special election in 2020. Both Isakson’s seat and U.S. Sen David Perdue’s seat will be on the ballot in Georgia.
Isakson’s retirement will be effective Dec. 31. For weeks leading up to his departure, Washington politicians have been saying their final thank yous.
Lewis, D-Atlanta, gave moving remarks on Nov. 19 about his friendship with Isakson that ended with an embrace between the two that Isakson said represents “how things can really change.”
“For two decades, you, Senator, led a team that could cross the aisle without compromising your values,” Lewis said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said if the Senate held a popularity contest, Isakson would win with bipartisan votes — possibly unanimously.
“He commands bipartisan respect and affection to a degree that’s truly remarkable,” McConnell said.
Isakson’s counterpart, Perdue, followed the retiring senator's final remarks with his own tribute.
“Johnny is a true public servant ... he’s devoted to getting results, not just to the people in Georgia, but to everybody in the United States,” Perdue said. “Not only do other people listen to Johnny ... when other people talk, Johnny listens and that’s a rare commodity in this town.”
Upholding that bipartisan legacy, Isakson said, is the task he’s leaving Senate members as he steps out the door.
“America, we’ve got a problem,” Isakson said. “I see things happening that I’m asked about by people that scare me. I’ve heard people I know say things that scare me.”
But elected officials have to "find common ground," he said.
“The strongest country in the world cannot succumb to crushing itself inwardly by looking away from challenges of life today," he said. "The solution is right here. It’s in your heart.”
Isakson didn’t leave the floor with a message of doom but with a message of hope.
“We can do it,” he said. “We can do anything.”
Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.