As news broke this week that Sen. Johnny Isakson was stepping down, much of the talk centered on Georgia being the center of the political universe next year, with purple state status as well as two U.S. Senate elections. Lost in the speculation of who would run or not was what made Isakson a Georgia political legend. Understanding this would be the key to determining his ideal replacement, which is no small task.
I’ve read articles, even columns, that focus on Isakson’s longevity of service in Georgia politics, even lumping him in with other famous Georgia GOP pols, such as Newt Gingrich and Sonny Perdue. But that wasn’t Isakson’s style. He not only loved politics, but he also cared for the people he served. And that included those not just from his own party, but across the aisle.
Isakson was a regular at Skyping with my collegiate class. That taught me several things. First, his age did not keep him from embracing new technology and showing an open mind, as well as coming up with a creative solution to a cruel disease that kept him from the extensive travel he wished he could do. Second, at a time where politicians were ducking public meetings in general, and college visits in particular, his top-notch staff was quick to offer a chance to speak with my students, as well as faculty and staff.
But it was hardly a “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” event. He won over attendees of both parties, not just telling them what they wanted to hear, but through his honesty and search for the best solution for the situation. We learned about the role he would play in generating the bipartisan cooperation necessary to keep the country going, though he was always modest about his personal impact. He was not only willing to discuss politics with my students, but also asked one to send her paper on No Child Left Behind Act reforms to his staff.
There will be opportunists, especially on the extreme wings of politics, who will see his retirement as an opportunity, and seek to replace him with their own brand of “take no prisoners” or “my way or the highway,” missing the valuable lessons Isakson taught.
There are several politicians who fit that mold. If I were Gov. Brian Kemp, I would appoint Attorney General Chris Carr to the post, not only for his role in the state’s economic development plans under former Gov. Nathan Deal, but also for his fair handling of justice issues before the state. Carr also came to LaGrange College in a key role to support our city’s efforts on racial reconciliation between law enforcement and the community, exporting our local leaders’ success to the rest of the state, with a speech that highlighted his personal connection to our goals. I felt like I was watching the next Isakson in action.
Democrats would do well to learn from Isakson as well. Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter ran as best they could in a challenging year for Democrats, and their relatively centrist mold would be a good fit for the Peach State, mirroring such service from their famous families.
But regardless who steps in, it’s important to point out that while ideologues may dominate the airwaves and get most of the media attention, Isakson’s big wins since the mid-1990s show that his brand of moderation is exactly what the voters are looking for. Failure to learn that lesson will likely lead to, well, failure, in 2020.