Yep, that Jimmy Naifeh, who presided over the state House of Representatives from 1991 until 2008, when a GOP majority of one in the House precluded his reelection as Speaker. Naifeh could at least take satisfaction in having played a pivotal role in getting maverick Republican Kent Williams of Elizabeth elected, with 49 Democratic votes and Williams’ own Republican one.
Speaker Naifeh’s long and legendary oversight of the House is familiar to most Tennessee political junkies. Less well known is his close brush with becoming a member of Congress a generation ago.
That was in 1988, when the venerable Ed Jones was stepping down from the 8th District seat, and the way was open for another influential West Tennessee Democrat to take his place.
A story Naifeh has told to intimates goes this way: Then governor Ned McWherter called into his office two men he saw as congressional prospects — state Rep. Naifeh, who had already held a variety of influential party posts in the House, and state Rep. John Tanner of Union City, also a force in the House.
“Which one of y’all is going to go to Congress?” McWherter drawled, according to the story. The idea was that either Naifeh or Tanner would have the blessing of the governor and the state party organization if they could work out the matter of succession between the two of them.
Naifeh’s usual punchline to the story is, “He drew the short straw,” meaning that, from his point of view, the high probability of significant control over Tennessee legislative matters was a far greater desideratum than being a congressional soldier and weekend frequent flyer.
However the decision was reached, Tanner is the one who ran. He won and kept on winning through 2008. When Tanner announced his decision not to seek reelection this week, it was widely assumed that one of the motivating factors was the running start gained by Republican opponent Stephen Fincher for the 2010 race. Tanner denies that.
Whatever the realities, state Senator Roy Herron of Dresden, long considered a congressional prospect, took the opportunity to drop his bid in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and switch over to a race for the 8th District congressional seat.
Other Democrats are thought to be mulling over a race for the congressional seat — among them state Senator Doug Jackson of Dickson and former state Rep. Phillip Pinion of Union City. Another possibility had been state Senator Lowe Finney of Jackson, but Finney bowed out of consideration on Thursday.
Now there’s talk of a Naifeh entry, though there has been no direct or indirection expression of interest from the former Speaker himself. Those who believe in the prospect note that it’s one thing to have to sit as a powerless back-bencher in a legislative body one is used to controlling. It’s another to be a freshman member of Congress, with a fresh start.
Naifeh, of course, had his 70th birthday this year. But he’s still vigorous and only a few months older than former mayor Willie Herenton of Memphis, who, as of this writing, was still being taken seriously as a declared Democratic primary opponent for incumbent U.S. Representative Steve Cohen of Memphis.
A simple statement from the former Speaker could puncture this balloon or send it flying.