Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Rep. Jimmy Naifeh announced Thursday that he won't seek re-election for his District 81 seat after 38 years in the House of Representatives, saying it's time to "pass the torch to the next generation of leaders."
Naifeh, who was given the honorary title of speaker emeritus after holding the top House post for 18 years, made the announcement on the House floor.
The Covington Democrat said the late Tennessee Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter, whom Naifeh described as a mentor in politics and life, "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," Naifeh said.
He was elected to the House in 1974 after losing his first bid for office in 1972. He was succeeded as House speaker in 2009 by Republican Rep. Kent Williams of Elizabethton, who edged Rep. Jason Mumpower of Bristol on a vote of 50-49 after all 49 Democrats banded together to support Williams.
Naifeh persuaded Williams to seek the speakership and was behind the plan for him to be elected.
"During my one term as speaker ... his experience helped me through a very hard two years," Williams said Thursday on the House floor. "Thank you for all you did."
Naifeh commanded respect from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — as well as the upper chamber. That respect was shown Thursday when Republicans, including Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, and other Democrats came over to the House during Naifeh's speech.
Ramsey, who at one time served under Naifeh in the House, later told reporters that his straightforward, no-nonsense style will be missed.
"He ... would tell you in two seconds exactly what he thought," said the Blountville Republican. "Many times I didn't want to hear exactly what he thought, or vehemently disagreed with what he thought. But I can deal with anybody in life like that. Just tell me what you think."
During his speech, Naifeh jovially alluded to some of his political dealings when he quipped: "I certainly played hard ball at least once or twice."
As Naifeh walked to his seat, lawmakers stood and gave him a lengthy applause. Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell then called him to the lectern and asked him to once again lead the House.
She told The Associated Press after the floor session that lawmakers respect Naifeh for his "years of service and his commitment to his constituents."
"Without a doubt, Speaker Naifeh is a strong Democrat," said Harwell, adding that Naifeh mentored her after she took over as the state's first female House speaker. "I'm a strong Republican. We haven't always agreed on issues, but I think my colleagues were honoring a fellow colleague."
Rep. Steve McDaniel said Naifeh was one of the few Democrats he was able to trust when he became a lawmaker.
"He is an icon in Tennessee politics," said the Parkers Crossroads Republican. "I admired his leadership, how he was able to get the job done."
Democratic Rep. Lois DeBerry of Memphis, who also holds the honorary title of speaker emeritus, said Naifeh's "supreme virtue is courage."
"My hymn book says, 'May the works I've done speak for me,'" said DeBerry, who became the first female speaker pro tempore in the House under Naifeh. "For 38 years, Speaker Naifeh has tried to do right for the people of Tennessee, despite obstacles and challenging situations."
Naifeh is the ninth Democratic lawmaker to announce his retirement this year.
He later told reporters he had been planning to retire since his last election and that a newly redrawn district by Republicans wasn't a major factor in his decision.
"I didn't know that Tipton County was going to be an entire district within itself," Naifeh said. "It would be a hard race, but I could win it."
State Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said in a statement that he wishes Naifeh the best, but didn't hesitate in announcing the intentions of the GOP.
"A chapter is ending in Tennessee political history with the announced retirement of former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh," Devaney said. "As we look ahead, we will be working hard to elect a strong Republican to lead District 81 moving forward."
Until then, Naifeh said he plans to continue his service to his constituents, as well as hopefully carry on with the tradition of his famous Coon Supper that began in 1945 by Oney Naifeh, the lawmaker's late father.
"I'm going to ... take care of my constituents until the next member is elected," he said.
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