Isakson thanks constituents during service at Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic church

Sen. Johnny Isakson is stepping down from Congress this year.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson appeared at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic church in Atlanta Sunday to thank his constituents as he prepares to retire amid health challenges, saying: “I love this city, love this place and love all of you.”

The three-term Republican senator’s visit to the politically progressive Ebenezer Baptist Church was in keeping with his emphasis on bipartisanship as he leaves office.

Ebenezer’s pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, considered running as a Democrat for Isakson’s seat in 2016 and has been sharply critical of the Trump administration.

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Isakson called Warnock a great friend Sunday, noting he had appeared at Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations at Ebenezer.

“I called Raphael and said, ‘Could I come?’ He said, ‘Well, you are leaving.’ I said, ‘No, I am not leaving. I am just retiring. There is a difference,’” said Isakson, 74, who used a walker to get to the church’s microphone.

“I wanted to come and just say thank you for all the things you have done for me over the last 45 years,” he added. “I was born here in 1944 and have been here ever since. And I love this city, love this place and love all of you.”

Isakson announced in August that he would step down because of his struggles with “mounting health challenges” which include Parkinson’s disease, recovery from a fall in July and surgery to remove a growth on his kidney. His decision sets up two simultaneous elections for the U.S. Senate in 2020 as Democrats scramble for gains in what has been a reliably conservative state.

Last week, Gov. Brian Kemp, a fellow Republican, appointed financial executive Kelly Loeffler to Isakson’s seat, selecting the co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA franchise over a GOP congressman endorsed by President Donald Trump.

Loeffler will serve through next year. And the state will hold an election in November 2020 to fill the remainder of Isakson’s term, which ends in 2022.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, also a Republican, is facing three challengers in his bid for a second term. Metro Atlanta’s suburbs are home to two of the nation’s most competitive U.S. House races. And control of the Georgia House is in play.

On Sunday, Warnock, introduced Isakson as a friend and “one of Georgia’s most beloved public servants.” The pastor highlighted how Isakson stays each year for the whole hours-long Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at Ebenezer, eliciting knowing laughter and applause from the pews.

Later, during a sermon focusing on John the Baptist’s foresight and selflessness, Warnock criticized the Trump administration’s $1.5 trillion tax cut from 2017, saying it benefits the richest corporations in the nation, and blasted its approval of a rule this month that will remove nearly 700,000 people from the federal food-stamp program by more strictly enforcing work requirements.

The pastor — he declined through a spokeswoman to comment about whether he would run for Isakson’s seat — also alluded to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s plans this week to debate whether to approve articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.

“Somebody ought to tell the members of Congress this historic week that some things are bigger and more important than your party and the next election. And who is up. And who is down. And who is winning. And who is losing,” Warnock said, his voice rising in a preacher’s cadence. “This is about the soul of our democracy. This is about the Constitution.”

Moments earlier, Isakson asked all veterans in the church to raise their hands. Pleading with the parishioners to support them, he noted many veterans struggle with joblessness and homelessness.

“They are all volunteers. Think about that,” said Isakson, a Georgia Air National Guard veteran and the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “The greatness of this country is in large measure because we can depend on them at any point, any time and any place, no matter what somebody does.”

Isakson also condemned the fatal shootings of three U.S. sailors at Naval Air Station Pensacola Friday, vowing to fight gun violence for the rest of his life. Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, a student at Naval Aviation Schools Command, was among those killed, the U.S. Navy confirmed Saturday.

Isakson concluded at Ebenezer with a patriotic message.

“This is the greatest country on the face of this earth. You don’t find anybody trying to break out of the United States of America. They are all trying to break in,” he joked. “I have been very lucky to be a United States senator, but I have been luckier to be a human being born in the United States of America and be a citizen of this country.”