What Others Are Saying

Friday, November 8, 2019

Atlanta Business Chronicle: Sen. Johnny Isakson started in politics trying to fix neighborhood zoning

As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle

If it hadn't been for zoning issues he sought to contest with his county commission over 50 years ago, the state of Georgia might not have known the results of Johnny Isakson's lifetime in politics.

"I was married and had two kids when we moved into our house and the neighborhood was having all kinds of problems with zoning and other issues," Isakson said. "One thing led to another and the residents wanted to elect a new commission president. I didn't go to that meeting so they elected me."

During that time, Isakson was able to represent his area neighborhoods and make some positive changes.

"I really enjoyed working with my neighbors and trying to work with the county commission and cause a good thing to happen rather than just get into a blood fight. It kind of was infectious," Isakson said.

Thus began a career in politics that spanned 45 years — and one that will come to a close when Isakson retires from his position as Georgia’s senior United States senator at the end of this year as the result of health issues related to his Parkinson's disease. Isakson was scheduled to be honored for a lifetime of service by the Atlanta Regional Commission on Nov. 8 at the ARC State of the Region breakfast.

Isakson entered politics in 1974 and served in the Georgia legislature for a combined 17 years. In 1977, then-Gov. Zell Miller appointed Isakson to chair the Georgia Board of Education. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1999 and the U.S. Senate in 2004, making him the only Georgian ever elected to the state House and state Senate and the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. He is also the first Georgia Republican ever elected to three terms in the U.S. Senate. For a third consecutive term, Isakson is the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, making him the only Republican in the Senate chairing two committees. He also serves on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Isakson served on the Atlanta Regional Commission board from 1997-1999, appointed by the Board of Community Affairs of the State of Georgia. He is credited today as being a driving force behind the ARC's Vision 2020 long-range plan for Atlanta.

"At the time it was in the works in the '90s, it was one of the biggest community engagement issues that had ever been taken on anywhere in the country," said ARC Executive Director Doug Hooker. "Johnny Isakson was quietly a big voice behind getting that started and a lot of people don't know that. ... With so many of things through the years, Johnny's been behind the scenes and that's how he works. He's more likely to say little but work hard behind the scenes to connect people and move progress for the region. That's just how he worked."

Isakson also had a hand in legislation that allowed formation of community improvement districts throughout metro Atlanta, according to ARC Board Chair Kerry Armstrong.

"As one of the co-authors of the state legislation that created community improvement districts, Sen. Isakson helped local governments work more closely with the business community for the betterment of many communities around metro Atlanta," Armstrong said. "Sen. Isakson’s service challenged local and regional leaders on our board to work more closely with the business community and advised ARC to find more effective ways to involve residents in our planning work.

“(He) understands the value and importance of regional commissions and has an unfailingly strong commitment for our region’s issues such as transportation, water and aging. ... During his time in elected office, whether in Atlanta or Washington, Sen. Isakson always kept Georgia and the Atlanta region close to his heart. His vision and leadership have left our region, our state, and our nation a much better place."

Georgia’s junior senator, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, has worked alongside Isakson and considers his fellow senator a friend and mentor.

"I like to call Johnny the Howard Baker of our era," Perdue said. "He doesn’t speak often, but when he does, people listen. ...Throughout his four decades of service, Johnny has always been a champion for the people of Georgia. His efforts at the state and federal level have grown the economy, created new jobs, and helped Atlanta become the hub for business that it is today.”

Together, Perdue and Isakson helped provide disaster relief for farmers in South Georgia earlier this year and secured funding for the deepening of the Port of Savannah. In fact, Isakson's efforts throughout his time in the U.S. House and Senate have been critical to getting the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project started, funded and now nearing completion, according to Griff Lynch, Georgia Ports Authority executive director.

"Sen. Isakson has always been a stalwart of support for our ports and economic development —whether that support was in terms of project funding, legislative action or as a mediator," Lynch said. "He was a critical supporter of federal contribution toward our Mega Rail project which will expand efficient rail service and opportunity beyond the Southeast to the entire Eastern half of the United States. ... His steady leadership and coalition-building ability have been key to strengthening American competitiveness in global trade, reducing unnecessary regulation and opening new markets for key Georgia commodities."

But it's perhaps Isakson's leading of the passage of an amendment that saved pensions for tens of thousands of Delta Air Lines Inc. employees — including 91,000 in Georgia — with the Pension Protection Act of 2006 that stands out to him the most.

"That is probably the most important thing I ever did," Isakson said. "It was a short timeframe to do it. It involved the whole country, yet Delta would swing in the balance of how we decided. It was a very complex issue. ... When we passed it, it was four hours before the bankruptcy judge was going rule in Atlanta. We were down to the last 24 hours and if we didn’t get it done, Delta would have gone into a structured bankruptcy, the pension would have been lost and I don’t think they’d be here today."

In regard to the ARC, Isakson is proud that the once-unpopular and ill-received commission is what it is today.

"I think when you look at the Atlanta Regional Commission and what has been accomplished the last 30-35 years, it’s remarkable," Isakson said. "A lot of the reasons you see the success stories we have, which are too numerous to mention, is because we found a way to come together and we found a way to realize that together we are better. We buried our axes in wood that we cut, rather than somebody’s head, and that made a world of difference."

And that is much how Isakson himself would like to be remembered.

"I hope everybody is remembered for the contributions they made to the region because it takes everybody to make it possible," he said. "Atlanta is too big and too important to rest on the shoulders of one or two people. It’s got to have the support of a broad cross-section of people and I hope to be recognized as one of many."

Closer Look

Here are some of the ways U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson aided Georgia:

  • Isakson has been a staunch defender of Georgia’s water rights in the decades-old water wars with Alabama and Florida, securing the update of water control manuals, holding hearings in Georgia with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and successfully blocking legislation that would have allowed federal intervention in the matter while negotiations and court cases were ongoing.
  • Isakson has been dedicated to the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project throughout his career. SHEP is on track to receive full funding from the federal government for the third year in a row, and the finish line is in sight. He’s led Georgia’s congressional delegation through three presidential administrations, pursing every possible legislative angle and doing what’s necessary to ensure the completion of this project, which is critical to Georgia and the Southeast.
  • Isakson also helped secure funding to deepen the Brunswick Harbor that allowed the port to accommodate larger cargo vessels and attract new business. Today, Brunswick is the leading terminal for new automobile imports in our country.
  • As a freshman in the U.S. Senate, Isakson led the passage of an amendment to the Pension Protection Act of 2006, which included measures to help prevent tens of thousands of airline employees — including some 91,000 Delta Air Lines pensioners and family members in Georgia — from losing their pensions and to help protect American taxpayers from having to pay for those airline pensions.
  • In the U.S. Senate, in the face of a financial shutdown, Isakson led efforts to begin construction on nuclear reactors 3 and 4 at Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Georgia, which are currently the only nuclear power reactors under construction in the country.
  • Isakson was instrumental in getting passage of a budget agreement that included his provision to extend the federal tax credit intended to help finance the construction of the nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle. The agreement was signed into law on Feb. 9, 2018.

  • As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, Isakson led the effort to secure authorization and funding to build a fifth runway at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
  • In 2015, Isakson led efforts to ensure Georgia’s infrastructure needs were met by the federal government during consideration and passage of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST ACT.

Website: https://www.bizjournals.com/atlanta/news/2019/11/08/sen-johnny-Isakson-started-in-politics-trying-to.html