As Jimmy Naifeh prepares to hang up his title as one of the longest sitting legislators in the Tennessee General Assembly, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say he leaves behind a legacy of determined leadership.
Naifeh, who presided over the House of Representatives as speaker for 18 years, the longest in the state’s history, announced he would not run for re-election his year.
“Governor McWherter always told me when it was time to go home, I’d know it. After talking with my family and friends, I believe the time has come for me to pass the torch to the next generation of leaders,” he said, admitting he “certainly played hardball, just once or twice,” during his time in office.
“Whatever he told you, you could take it to the bank,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told reporters Thursday, shortly after the 72-year-old Naifeh declared on the House floor it was time for him to pass the torch to fellow Democrats.
“He has really been a fixture that stood for what he believed in, even though lots of times I disagreed with him,” the Blountville Republican continued. “He’ll be missed in this institution. I mean that.”
Naifeh’s announcement drew the attention of not only his House colleagues, but senators, who recessed their chamber to watch his announcement, along with Comptroller Justin Wilson, who watched on bended knee behind Naifeh’s chair in the back of the chamber.
“He was an incredibly strong and powerful speaker, and he knew what he wanted to do and always tried to move very definitively in that way,” Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Thursday, speaking after a press conference on reducing obesity at the Tennessee Hospital Association headquarters in Nashville. “He was going to do what he said, whether you liked it or not.”
Naifeh’s political biography stretches 38 years to his election in 1974. The Covington Democrat was elected Speaker of the House in 1991. He served uninterrupted under Governors Ned McWherter, Don Sundquist and Phil Bredesen.
“Naifeh used the speakership to say what he thought ought to be done,” said Sen. Doug Henry, D-Nashville, the Legislature’s elder statesman, who began serving in the Senate four years before Naifeh was elected to the House. “He was such a definite individual, that I think that impressed itself on the House primarily, but actually on the entire Legislature.”
In the early 2000s, Naifeh was a vocal advocate for instituting an income tax — a debate that sparked protests on Capitol Hill and what House Speaker Beth Harwell described as “clearly a turning point” leading to the rise of the Republican Party taking over the General Assembly and Naifeh’s loss of the gavel.
“I think yes, it was very helpful to us in obtaining our majority status,” said Harwell, who had allowed Naifeh to preside over the chamber shortly after making his announcement.
“It became a battle cry that helped us ascend,” added Ramsey, who served in the House four years under Naifeh. Ramsey said his appreciation for the hard-nosed Democrat grew considerably once be became Senate Speaker in 2007. “I appreciate leadership styles whether they’re mine or not,” said Ramsey. “His worked well.”
Rep. Debra Maggart said Naifeh’s failed effort to institute an income tax was a clear trigger giving rise to Republican takeover of the Legislature.
“I would say the Republican majority today, that we enjoy, is a direct result of the income tax fight,” said Maggart, the House Republican Caucus chairwoman from Hendersonville. “It took a while to get it here, but it did come, and I do think that certainly had a lot to do with it.”
Haslam said he originally found it striking that so many lawmakers were calling it quits this year, but says maybe it isn’t so unusual.
“There’s a lot more turnover here than people think there is, and so it’s maybe not all that extraordinary in the bigger picture,” he told reporters.
Alex Harris and Steven Hale contributed to this report.