Madam Speaker, Members, I want to thank you for giving me a few minutes today to come to the well and make some remarks. I’ve served in this chamber for 38 years. That’s a long time, over half my adult life actually. This body, this institution is a part of me, it’s a part of my family and I will always have a special place in my heart for the men and women I’ve served with here over the last three decades. But as with every endeavor in life, that which has a beginning must also have an end. For me and my service in the legislature that end comes now. I am announcing today, to you and to the people of district 81, that I will not be seeking re-election to the House of Representatives this fall. Governor McWherter, my mentor, always told me I would know when it was time to go home and I know that time has come for me to step aside for the next generation of leaders.
I was elected to the legislature in 1974. Most people don’t know that I had run for this seat once before, in 1972. I actually lost that election by 13 votes. It sounds strange now, but I was actually the anti-establishment candidate back in those days. When the results came in, they were close enough that I could have requested a recount, but I didn’t. I didn’t do that because I knew that wasn’t what was best for the people of Tennessee. And it also taught me a valuable lesson; you can’t take any vote or any person for granted. When I finally got here two years later, I kept that lesson in mind. I think that’s why I have been blessed again and again to be returned to this house by the people of district 81. Regardless of our disagreements over matters of policy, I always believed that people mattered, that their opinions mattered and that they deserved a representative who would listen to their concerns.
When I got here, I knew that I wanted to move up into leadership or I was going to go home. That kind of restlessness I think comes from my days as an infantry officer. In the army, they teach you that everyone who has the ability lead has the responsibility to do so. In my second term, I was elected Floor Leader for the Democrats. Then I became Majority Leader and later had the privilege to serve as Speaker of this House for 18 years. I passed a lot of bills during my time here. Back in those days, the Majority Leader handled all the Governor’s bills. You didn’t hand them off and let anyone else run them, you did that yourself. It was, to say the least, a nightmare for both me as Leader and for my staff, but we passed some good bills.
Talking about staff, I want to say a word about how much the staff and members have meant to me over the years. The members were always my first priority as Speaker. Whether they were Democrat or Republican, I always saw myself as the Speaker of this body, not a particular party. Now I don’t think it was any secret where my party loyalties laid and I certainly played hardball a time or two, but I always maintained relationships with members on both sides of the aisle. This is a unique fraternity. Our families know each other, my two daughters who are here today, practically grew up here with people like Lois DeBerry and others as members of their extended family. We celebrate together, we mourn together and we work together to get the job done for Tennessee. Governor McWherter, who I think you all know was my mentor in politics and in life, used to tell Lamar Alexander that he wanted him to succeed because when he succeeded, Tennessee succeeded. I took that approach with my members. I wanted everyone in this body to be successful because they had earned the right to be here. When they succeeded, the men and women who sent them here were the ultimate winners.
And our staff, we are so fortunate to have a highly trained, professional staff here at the Tennessee General Assembly. As Speaker, I could hardly wait to get to my office and Reta and Burney could hardly wait for me to get there, as they would never know what I would be doing off schedule. I had a truly great staff with Reta, Burney, Doris, Bertha and of course my good friend Victor. When people talk and make jokes about state employees, I tell them that I would put our staff up against any Fortune 500 company. That is one of the things I am most proud of from my time as Speaker. We were able to build—from the attorney’s in legal, to fiscal review, to human resources, to legislative assistants—a capable and high-performing staff. Many of the people we hired over the years are still here, not because they do a good job for one political agenda or another, but because they work hard and do a good job for the people of Tennessee. I appreciate all the help they have given me over my years here in the legislature.
It’s hard to put 38 years of service into a few remarks, but I will leave you with this thought. It’s actually my favorite quote: Power and influence are only effective when used properly. Each and every one of you has been given an extraordinary amount of power by virtue of the office you hold. What you do with that power, whether it be for the good or for the bad, is entirely up to you. I hope you will remember that people matter, all people not just people from your caucus or your party, all people. Every person in this place got elected. They represent people and ideas that have validity, that deserve to be heard and accommodated. Remember that as you go forward. It has been my privilege to serve in this body, I will miss it enormously, but it is time to pass the torch and explore other options. I thank you for your time, Madam Speaker.
Among the responses to Rep. Naifeh’s announcement were the following two, each in their way typical:
Said state Senate Democratic caucus chair Lowe Finney of Jackson:
"Speaker Naifeh has served all Tennesseans for nearly 40 years with a fair hand, a strong will and an eye toward justice. An unparalleled advocate for children's rights, education and safety, Speaker Naifeh took to heart our charge to care for the most vulnerable among us.
"His presence and authority in the legislature will be missed, but we have no doubt that he will continue to embody these values as he sets an example for a new generation of Tennessee leaders."
And later in the day came this reaction from state Republican chairman Chris Devaney of Nashville:
"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.”