ATLANTA — Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson announced he is resigning from the U.S. Senate at the end of 2019.
In a statement, Isakson said, "After much prayer and consultation with my family and my doctors, I have made the very tough decision to leave the U.S. Senate at the end of this year."
His statement continues:
“In my 40 years in elected office, I have always put my constituents and my state of Georgia first. With the mounting health challenges I am facing, I have concluded that I will not be able to do the job over the long term in the manner the citizens of Georgia deserve. It goes against every fiber of my being to leave in the middle of my Senate term, but I know it’s the right thing to do on behalf of my state."
A four-decade veteran of Georgia politics, Isakson has served in the U.S. Senate since 2005. He won his third term in 2016 by a comfortable margin and wasn’t up for reelection until 2022.
Isakson, 74, has suffered several falls since announcing he has Parkinson's, which limits his balance and mobility. He recently spent six days in an inpatient rehabilitation program after being hospitalized in Washington on July 16. And he said this week he had surgery to remove a growth on his kidney.
"His legacy in Georgia will be felt for many, many years. He set that gold standard and the ability to get things done in Washington," said state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Macon.
His retirement triggered praise from state leaders from both parties, including Atlanta Democratic Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who said Isakson’s departure is a “great loss” for Georgia.
Channel 2's Dave Huddleston caught up with Gov. Brian Kemp at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. Kemp said Isakson's impact on the state will be remembered for years to come.
"I tell you, Johnny Isakson is a great American, truly a great Georgian," Kemp said. "I certainly appreciate him putting the state and his country ahead of himself, we certainly wish him the best."
Isakson said he plans to return to Washington when the Senate resumes next month. But his deteriorating health will keep him from staying long. Kemp will appoint Isakson’s replacement until a special election can be held.
The governor told Huddleston that he wants someone who's tough to take Isakson’s spot.
"(We need) someone who is going to represent our values in the state who's going to fight for us, fight for Georgians in the Senate," Kemp said.
It’s not yet clear who Kemp will appoint to Isakson’s seat, though potential candidates include Attorney General Chris Carr, Georgia Senate Pro Tem Butch Miller and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.
Political strategist Brian Robinson, who worked for former Gov. Nathan Deal, said he wouldn't be surprised if Kemp did something unexpected.
"Gov. Kemp is very attuned to the changing demographics of this state and the need to have a more diverse face. So, I’m not going to be surprised if Gov. Kemp appoints a minority candidate or a woman candidate," Robinson said.
Three Georgia Democrats have already announced a challenge to junior U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a first-term Republican who is up for reelection in 2020. Isakson’s seat will likely draw several other Democrats, who see Georgia as increasingly competitive.
Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams said on Twitter she "will not be a candidate herself" for the Senate seat that Isakson will be vacating but "she is committed to helping Democratic candidates win both Senate races next year."
There was much speculation that Abrams would run against Perdue.
Veterans' issues will be large part of Isakson’s legacy:
Isakson is chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee and is a veteran himself.
Following his graduation from the University of Georgia in 1966, Isakson entered into the Georgia National Guard, where he reached the rank of staff sergeant.
As his political career went on, veterans' issues became a big part of his role in the House, as well as the Senate.
“My senior year of college I got a diploma and a draft notice on the same day. I joined the National Guard, of which I’m very proud — I’m still a Guardsman to this day,” Isakson said during a 10-minute speech on the Senate floor paying tribute to his friend Sen. John McCain in August 2018.
Isakson has been on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee for nearly 15 years, the last five as chairman.
Over that time, he’s championed reforms through legislation to improve veterans’ access to care in the community, hold employees and leaders accountable for problems at the country's VA hospitals, and establish protections for whistleblower who report issues against the VA.
He also pushed for measures to fight the suicide crisis among veterans.
Isakson’s full statement:
“After much prayer and consultation with my family and my doctors, I have made the very tough decision to leave the U.S. Senate at the end of this year. I have informed Georgia Governor Brian Kemp today that I will resign my Senate seat effective December 31, 2019.
“I am leaving a job I love because my health challenges are taking their toll on me, my family and my staff. My Parkinson’s has been progressing, and I am continuing physical therapy to recover from a fall in July. In addition, this week I had surgery to remove a growth on my kidney.
“In my 40 years in elected office, I have always put my constituents and my state of Georgia first. With the mounting health challenges I am facing, I have concluded that I will not be able to do the job over the long term in the manner the citizens of Georgia deserve. It goes against every fiber of my being to leave in the middle of my Senate term, but I know it’s the right thing to do on behalf of my state.
“I look forward to returning to Washington on September 9 when the Senate goes back into session. And after December 31, I look forward to continuing to help the people of Georgia in any way I can and also helping those who are working toward a cure for Parkinson’s.”
Statement from fellow Georgia U.S Senator David Perdue:
“When Johnny Isakson speaks, people listen. He is a true statesman, and it shows every day. It is my high honor to serve as Johnny’s partner in the United States Senate. Like so many Georgians, I was surprised and saddened to learn that he will not finish the rest of his term. Together, we are able to get real results for Georgia. Throughout his four decades of service, Johnny has always been a champion for the people of Georgia, especially our veterans. Bonnie and I are grateful for Johnny and Dianne’s leadership, and we are proud to call them our friends.”
Gov. Brian Kemp released a statement regarding Isakson's announcement.
“No one embodies the heart and soul of Georgia more than Johnny Isakson," said Governor Kemp. "Our state and country have been immeasurably blessed by his leadership in the Georgia General Assembly, U.S. House, and U.S. Senate. Senator Isakson’s list of accomplishments on behalf of the state that he loves is long and revered, but what Georgia should be most thankful for is the high standard that Johnny held as a true gentleman, a fighter for his constituents, a trusted advocate for our nation’s veterans, and one of the greatest statesmen to ever answer the call of service to our country. Marty and I are forever grateful for the friendship that Johnny and Dianne have shown us over the years and wish them the very best in the years to come. I will appoint Senator Isakson’s replacement at the appropriate time.”
"Senator Isakson is a lifelong family friend, and we are deeply grateful for his dedicated service to our state and nation, including alongside my father in the Georgia General Assembly," said First Lady Marty Kemp. "Georgia is incredibly blessed to have had Johnny on our side for all these years. Our family is praying for Johnny and Dianne as they embark on this new journey."
Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan released a statement regarding Isakson's resignation.
“Over the course of his career, Senator Isakson consistently put Georgians first and embodied what it means to be a workhorse and not a show horse in Washington. He built the Republican Party of Georgia from the ground up, and I am so thankful for his conservative leadership. His commitment to our Georgia values is something every elected official in our state should seek to emulate. Brooke and I wish him and his family all the best in the coming years.”
Speaker David Ralston released a statement thanking Isakson for his years of service.
“The loss of Johnny Isakson from public life will leave a void in Georgia which is beyond comprehension. While I respect his reasons, I feel a tremendous sense of personal sadness – Johnny is a mentor, role model and friend. Over a distinguished career in the Georgia House, Georgia State Senate, State Board of Education, U.S. House and U.S. Senate, Johnny Isakson demonstrated that civility and reasonableness are virtues that will never go out of style. My family and I will continue to pray for Johnny, Dianne and the Isakson family.”
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