Former Speaker Naifeh Won’t Run for Re-Election to House Seat

Former Tennessee House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh today announced that after 38 years, he won’t run for re-election in his Tipton County district.

Jimmy Naifeh, 72, says he won’t run for the district he has represented since 1974.

“Governor McWherter, who was my mentor, always told me that I would know when it was time to go. And I know that time has come for me to step aside for the next generation of leaders.”

In a ten-minute speech, the long-time speaker of the House urged members to consider “the people” rather than their party as they do the work they were elected to.

“I always saw myself as the speaker of this body, not a particular party. Now I don’t think it’s any secret where my loyalties law. And I certainly played hardball, just once or twice.”

Naifeh ran the House with an iron hand for 18 years, a record, installing Democrats in all important posts. He became the figurehead of the enemy Democratic Party to the state GOP.

But Republicans in the House joined their Democratic colleagues in giving the retiring ex-speaker a two-minute standing ovation.

Naifeh is the ninth Democratic lawmaker to step down rather than run in the newly reapportioned districts drawn by the Republican majority.

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Naifeh has served 19 terms. With 38 years in the House, he is second in seniority only to his friend Lois DeBerry, a Memphis Democrat.

The Democrat from Tipton County earned a B.S. from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

He served two years as an active-duty infantry officer in the U.S. Army in the 1960s before transferring to the Reserves. The service shaped his ideas of leadership.

“In the Army, they teach you, that everyone who has the ability to lead, has the responsibility to do so.“

A blue cloth shoulder patch with the Infantry Officer School motto, “Follow Me,” sat on his desk in the speaker’s office for many years.

Naifeh was first elected in 1974 and came to Nashville in January 1975. Within a few terms he became the Democratic Floor Leader of the House under iconic speaker Ned McWherter, who went on to become governor.

Naifeh’s in-House foot soldiers were the Democrats elected from the largely rural West Tennessee area, a region that had voted consistently Democratic since Reconstruction.

In 1991, in McWherter’s second term, Naifeh at the head of his disciplined West Tennessee party members became speaker. He held the post a record 18 years before he was ousted in January 2009.

A bare majority of 50 Republican House members was outflanked when Democrats cut a deal with a rogue Republican, Kent Williams, to make Williams speaker and retain some Democratic chairmanships. Williams served one term and was booted out of the state Republican Party for his deed.


The current speaker, Republican Beth Harwell, invited Naifeh back to the podium shortly after he made his announcement to preside one last time.

When he was speaker, Naifeh’s style was to enable Democrats and lock Republicans out of power. His “West Tennessee Mafia” took over chairmanships in the powerful House standing committees. After several terms at the podium, the speaker began to appoint likely Republicans to head many House subcommittees – which were influential, if not exactly powerful.

Most of those favored Republicans crossed over to vote for Naifeh as speaker, an inevitability in the Democrat-controlled House. Those GOP members were targeted as unfaithful to the Republican cause and were whittled away in contentious GOP primaries.

In the first gubernatorial term of the 2000s, Republican Governor Don Sundquist proposed a state income tax to balance the budget. Republicans disowned the governor and Democrats picked up the project in the legislature. Conservative talk show hosts renamed the effort “the Naifeh income tax” and used the tagline for the next decade.

Politically, the speaker’s West Tennessee district was a hotbed of symbolic party politics. Republican money flowed into the effort to unseat him. Democratic foot soldiers from Shelby County poured into the counties to go door to door to roll out the vote for Naifeh.

Naifeh was present for redrawing of the state voting district map after the 1980 Census and was in charge for the re-drafts after 1990 and 2000. Those reapportionments nibbled away at increasingly Republican suburban areas but could do only so much to halt and increasing shift to the Red side of the political spectrum by Tennessee voters.

A new Republican majority held the pencil after 2010 and Naifeh’s district, Tipton and Haywood counties, was redesigned. A more Democratic Haywood County was shifted to another district. Naifeh was left with just Tipton County, increasingly populated by Republican-voting ex-Memphis suburbanites.

State Republican Party spokesmen had issued comments on previous Democratic retirees that were described in news headlines as “gloating.” Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney was more diplomatic in acknowledging Naifeh’s decision.

“A chapter is ending in Tennessee political history with the announced retirement of former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh. We wish him well in his future plans. As we look ahead, we will be working hard to elect a strong Republican to lead district 81 moving forward,” said Devaney.

Naifeh joins eight Democrats who previously announced they would step down.

From the House:

Bill Harmon, 68, of Dunlap, is leaving his District 37 after serving eight years.

Harry Tindell, 51, whose urban Knoxville 13th District was joined to more conservative Knox County suburbs.
Janis Sontany, 65, of South Nashville, whose new 53rd District was about 70 percent new voters she hadn’t represented before.

Eddie Bass, a former Giles County sheriff, who briefly flirted with become a Republican in order to run in the newly drawn 70th District. Republicans told him their dance card was already full. Bass currently represents the 63rd District, but his home county was moved into a new configuration which includes much of Lawrence County.

From the Senate:

Joe Haynes of Goodlettsville, 75, is stepping down after 26 years in the Senate. He is the third most senior senator (after Nashville Democrat Douglas Henry and Memphis Democrat Jim Kyle).

Andy Berke of Chattanooga , 43, whose District 10 Hamilton County wards were joined with parts of Bradley County, which regularly elects Republicans. Berke is expected to run for mayor of Chattanooga. Berke, a former legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, was first elected to serve out a partial term left by former Sen. Ward Crutchfield, who had pled guilty in an FBI bribery sting operation. Berke was elected to a full four-year term in 2008.

Eric Stewart of Franklin County says instead of standing for re-election in Senate District 14, he’ll run in the Democratic primary for the right to challenge U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, the 4th U.S. District Republican congressman.

Roy Herron of Dresden is retiring after 24 years in the General Assembly (10 in the House, 14 serving District 24 in the Senate). Herron two years ago ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House 8th District seat and lost to current Republican Rep. Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump.

Candidates must declare themselves for the primary ballots by April 5.

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