The Running Man: A conversation with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson

Few Georgia politicians are more respected than Johnny Isakson. But he isn’t taking a third senate term for granted—even if there’s no one to seriously challenge him.

Less than two weeks after Republicans trounced Democrats in the lopsided November 2014 midterms, Isakson came to the Georgia Capitol to announce his re-election bid for a third term in the U.S. Senate—an election that wouldn’t happen for another two years. When qualifying for the 2016 Senate race ends on March 11, Georgia’s senior senator already will have spent 480 days on the campaign trail.

During his time in Washington, Isakson has worked to secure funding for the Savannah Port, reform the Department of Veteran Affairs, and reduce the federal deficit. If his record of bipartisanship wasn’t enough to win over voters, he’s relentlessly campaigned, padding his war chest with $5.6 million just in case a serious challenger emerges.

So far none have appeared. But that hasn’t slowed Isakson down. On an unseasonably warm February afternoon, he was working in his ninth-floor office in Cobb County a couple miles east of SunTrust Park. During a weeklong trip back home, Isakson glad-handed constituents at a Kiwanis meeting in Americus, spoke with realtors in Newnan, and held fundraisers across the state from Tifton to Atlanta. Before heading back to D.C., he spoke with us in a wide-ranging interview about the state of the Republican Party, his preference for compromise over grandstanding, and living with Parkinson’s disease. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You successfully pushed a bill to give victims of the Iran hostage crisis $10,000 for every day they were held captive. During your trip home, you met with a Georgia man who was held hostage in Iran in 1979. How was it talking to him with a finalized settlement in place?

It was very emotional for them and, really, for me. Joe Hall was a captive in 1979 for 444 days like the other 54 hostages who were beaten, tortured, and finally released thanks to Ronald Reagan. He was very appreciative, obviously, of what we’d done. I’ve been working on [compensation] for seven years with two different administrations, two secretaries of state, [and] two attorneys general. We got close so many times but we finally delivered this year, so persistence pays off as well.

You’ve been an elected official since the mid-1970s. You’ve won close races and lost some races. This time around, no serious challenger, not even a Democrat, has entered the Senate race. How do you campaign when no one wants to run against you?

The only thing you can control in a political race is yourself. You can’t control who your opponent is. You can’t control when they get in or when they get out. We’ve raised a lot of money. I’ve got a terrific professional staff that keeps me straight. We’ll be ready.

When I first ran in 1974, I had never run for office in my life, and so I prepared much differently than I prepared today having served in office for 35 years. Before, I was establishing a record. Now, I’ve got a record. You can’t be good at anything unless you’re being yourself. You run on what you’ve done, and you describe what you want to do in the future.

Political outsiders have become increasingly popular in the 2016 presidential race. Have you tailored your approach, considering you’re viewed as Georgia’s consummate establishment politician?

When I went to the Legislature in 1976, I was the 19th Republican. There were 161 Democrats. Custer had better odds than we had. To do anything, I had to find somebody to work with in the Democratic Party to help me go from 19 votes to the 91 votes it took to get a majority. As time has gone by, we went from being a very minority party to the majority. The same things hold true today. If it’s only going to be your way or the highway, you’re never going to get anything done. If you’re willing to find common ground on 80 percent of an issue, then don’t lose it over the 20 percent where you can’t find it. That’s always been the way I’ve operated. It’s served me well.

When you look back at your preference for compromise, is there a particular example of that approach that you feel has served Georgians best during your time in office?

In December, I was able to pull [Georgia’s] delegation together almost unanimously to support the omnibus appropriations bill, which had its detractors. In return for extracting the language that was punitive to the ports of Savannah and Brunswick, we saved Georgia from a threat to its water supply in skewing the balance of power between Alabama and Georgia in the “water wars,” which have been going on for 26 years. Although some didn’t like the bill, it cut $100 billion in spending from the 2008 level.

There were a lot of people that said, “Don’t vote for any appropriations bill, period.” But if you can cut $100 billion in spending and save your state’s position in the Tri-State Water Compact, then I consider that a smart thing to do. Of the 16 members of the delegation—senators and representatives—14 voted together, Democrat and Republican. We made a deal nobody thought we could make. It’s what you’re able to do in the process, not what you’re able to do for the camera.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died earlier this month. You’ve said you favor waiting until President Barack Obama leaves office to confirm his successor. The president intends on moving forward with the nomination process this year. Is there any scenario in which you would vote for his nominee?

The issue has nothing to do with President Obama and everything to do with Antonin Scalia. He was appointed in 1986 by Ronald Reagan, who was dead in five or six years. Scalia served for 30 years. Whoever is appointed to fill this seat probably will serve for 30 years. It could be a Republican. It could be a Democrat. It could be an independent. For a tie-breaking appointment on a court divided four-four, it’s more appropriate for the people of the United States to make that appointment than for a president who’s going out of office at the end of the year.

You haven’t endorsed a candidate in the presidential race. Do you plan to?

No, I do not.

Why not?

I serve at the pleasure of the people of Georgia. They didn’t elect me to be their consulting adviser on who to vote for. They elected me to do a job for them. I’ll embrace the nominee of the [Republican] party when we know who the nominee is. In the meantime, the people deserve the opportunity to make that choice, not me.

After President Obama won re-election in 2012, there was a belief that to take back the White House, the Republican Party needed to become more inclusive. Candidates like Donald Trump have done the opposite by taking an exclusionary stance. I understand you’re not endorsing anyone, but how do you feel about candidates who have deviated from that plan of inclusion?

We’ve got a very diverse country that’s getting more diverse. Georgia is a good example of that. The white voting population in Georgia has declined about two percent every four years for the last three presidential elections and will continue to as the minority population grows. I do everything I can to reach out to every Georgian without excluding anybody. Everybody’s vote is important.

Obviously, if Bernie Sanders were nominated, the Democratic Party would have him crawling to the center from the left so fast it would make your head swim. If somebody on the far right were nominated in our party, they’d be crawling to the center from the right. Reagan was probably the best example. He was really an arch-conservative right-wing challenger to Gerald Ford, who lost but got the nomination four years later. [Reagan] moved to the center and became a great example of finding common ground. Ronald Reagan signed the [bill that created Martin Luther King Jr. Day], which no Republican had ever done before. He empowered the EPA. He did all kinds of things that conservatives were not thought to have wanted to do, but he reached out and found compromise.

You were at a Google event in Cobb County during your trip home. Google is one of about nearly 100 companies or universities in Georgia that are fighting the “religious freedom” bills proposed at the Gold Dome. You’re working on a federal bill, the First Amendment Defense Act, which would create a single “religious freedom” law across the entire country. If your bill doesn’t pass, and a Georgia bill does pass, do you fear there will be a scenario in which the state would face backlash similar to what was seen in Indiana last year?

Vermont passed a law that says every agricultural product sold in the state must have a label that tells what GMOs are contained in the product. The agricultural products sold in that state come from all 50 states. If everybody’s got to make their label fit Vermont, then what do you do when New Jersey or Georgia passes a conflicting GMO law? The cost would be incredible. There are certain areas where you just ought to have a national standard.

I happen to think the First Amendment that protects my right to worship as I see fit—and for the government to not establish a religion—is the “religious liberty” protection that I need. But if you [must] have a “religious liberty” standard, the reason I support one at the federal level is because it would be seamless for all 50 states. But if there are isolated “religious liberty” bills passed in every state, you’d have a labyrinth of bills that are not necessarily consistent, which would cause all the ramifications you referred to in your example [of Indiana].

If the federal “religious freedom” bill doesn’t pass before the state bills, do you fear there potentially will be social or economic fallout in Georgia?

Fear is not the right word. I’m elected to the Senate. My responsibility is what we do there. The members of the General Assembly are elected to do what they think is best for the state. It’s best for the country to have a seamless interpretation of “religious liberty” for all states.

Last June, you announced that you had been diagnosed back in 2013 with Parkinson’s disease.

That’s right.

How are you feeling today?

I feel great.

How has your diagnosis changed your daily routine? How has it changed the way you see other people with Parkinson’s? I read you have been an active fundraiser for Parkinson’s in recent months.

I always worked for people with disabilities to make sure they had an adequate access to education. I worked for the disability community in lots of various charitable events. I’ve always had an appreciation for people with disabilities. None of the disabilities keep you from doing anything unless they begin to control your mind and your attitude.

When I was first diagnosed, for a couple of years only my wife knew. I didn’t even tell my kids. You have a few things in your walk and your gait and some things that become obvious. Then, as an elected official, I owed it to disclose what I had. And I did. I do what the doctors tell me to do. I do the right exercises. I try and eat right. I ate fish and green beans and corn for lunch. I want the record to reflect that: a green vegetable, a yellow vegetable, and fish, which is terrific.

What kind of fish?

I don’t know. It was fried. I wasn’t going to tell you that part. If it’s fried, it’s good, even if it’s old shoe leather.

What kind of treatment do you get?

I do the physical therapy to deal with the complications that are all muscular in nature, not mental in nature. First thing I do is a one- to two-mile walk usually at 5:30 or 6 [in the morning]. Then there are physical exercises that you do to tone your muscles and your agility and your extremities. I do them twice a day most of the time. I can accomplish the exercises in anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes. The walk, depending on how brisk I’m walking, I can do it from anywhere for 20 to 35 minutes.

The way you deal with a neurological disease like Parkinson’s is through physical activity and exercise. You get a lot more of that when you’re walking the halls of Congress, walking down airport concourses, being in six cities in three days at fundraisers and town hall meetings like I just did. It’s part of the prescription for my good health, which I’m enjoying.

You’ve said you’re running with the intention of serving a third full term. But I’ve heard people within Georgia politics theorize that you might hand off the seat to Gov. Deal, who could then appoint another Republican to office rather than risk the seat in an open election.

Why in the world would anybody do that? I mean since November 17 of 2014, I’ve raised $5.6 million. When I’m not in Washington, I’m traveling the state campaigning, working to be re-elected, working on projects that have longitudinal solutions that are a lot longer out in the future than just one year. I think what I’m doing, and how I’m doing it, ought to be prima facie evidence that I’m not running to turn it over to the governor to appoint somebody else.

If you win a third term, have you thought about a point where, medically speaking, you feel it would be best to step down?

No, I think positive. I think about how things are going to work out well. I had never contemplated the scenario.

You’ve criticized President Obama for thawing diplomatic relations with Cuba. What are your thoughts now that he’s planning to go there next month?

There was nothing in return [with the original deal]. It was all for Cuba. There was nothing about U.S. agriculture going into the country. Nothing about the refugees or political prisoners or anything like that. I’m happy that he’s going to Cuba. I’m not happy that he wants to close Guantanamo Bay. That prison’s been important to the security of our country. I think he’s wrong in wanting to close it.

Outside of Guantanamo Bay, are you happy there’s a relationship now with Cuba?

The deal’s over. He made a deal to give them diplomatic recognition without extracting anything in return. For the Cubans who fled Castro and came to south Florida and for the people who’ve been held political prison in Cuba for decades, it’s unfortunate that he didn’t try to negotiate either their release or [compensation] for what was taken from them. Just like it was so wrong to make the Iranian nuclear deal without extracting more from the Iranians. Once it’s over, it’s over. It’s just a part of the historical record.