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.
Kim McMillan, the former House Majority Leader from Clarksville, is running for governor, and, like all other candidates, is aware of the shadow cast over the Democratic primary by the name McWherter — as in Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, son of former governor Ned Ray McWherteer.
Especially after the withdrawal from the race of state Senator Roy Herron, who hails from McWherter's home town of Dresden, and of one other Democratic candidate, Ward Cammack of Nashville, the man from Jackson might seem to have an advantage in the narrowing gubernatorial field. There's all that inherited name recognition, right?
Wrong, according to McMillan. While doing a meet and greet Wednesday night in Midtown Memphis, McMillan offered this capsule of how in her first race she beat an even more famous name, at least locally:
Tanner’s withdrawal from a reelection race leaves Tennessee’s once-dominant Democrats in an ever more precarious situation, with no immediate successor to carry the party standard in a conservative district that is thought now to be trending Republican.
Various Democrats have habored notions of running for Congress in the past, however — among them state Senator Roy Herron of Dresden, now a candidate for governor. Herron and other leading Democrats may shortly be re-assessing their plans, but they’ll be facing a situation of catch-up.
Andy Sere, spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, released this statement:
“Stephen Fincher’s impressive candidacy was already raising eyebrows from Frog Jump to Washington, and we’re confident he’ll have the privilege of representing Tennessee’s 8th District after he beats whichever sacrificial lamb Democrats offer up.
"Rather than face Fincher and make tortured excuses for his liberal party’s job-killing agenda, Rep. Tanner wisely threw in the towel. Ambitious Democrats now pondering a run should ask themselves: if a longtime incumbent who had gone unchallenged for two decades was terrified of losing next year, how could they possibly win over West and Middle Tennessee just as it’s fleeing Obama’s party in droves?”
UPDATE! State Senator Herron has in fact opted to switch his race from governor to Congress and forwarded this statement to supporters:
"Tonight, my longtime friend and Congressman, John Tanner, announced he will not seek re-election to Tennessee’s 8th District.
"Given the challenges facing this nation, this state, and this congressional district, I feel like I can help make a difference by serving in Congress. And so, I want to let you know immediately of my decision to run.
"You deserve a much fuller explanation of my decision than I can give at this late hour. I will be back in touch with you soon to share more. For now, I respectfully ask for your consideration, your support, and your prayers."
In the contested Republican primary for state House District 83, Mark White defeated John Pellicciotti by an unofficial margin of 1,857 votes to Pellicciotti's 1556 votes. with Michael Porter trailing in the 4 percent range.
Kelsey and his supporters claimed victory, with Kelsey making this statement:
"I am humbled by the opportunity to serve the people in the state Senate. I’m grateful for every single person who took the time to go vote for me. I think people responded to our message of fiscal responsibility.”
State senator-elect Kelsey congratulated opponent Pakis-Gillon for her effort with these words:
"She was very gracious in conceding the race. I appreciate the opportunity to get to run against her."
Republic state chairman Chris Devaney in Nashville has this to say:
"Brian has already demonstrated his ability to effectively lead and legislate on behalf of his constituents," said Devaney. "During his time in the State House, Brian was a leader in the fight for ethics reform and worked tirelessly to protect taxpayers' dollars.
"Brian's experience in the State House will serve him well as he takes on this new role of public service in the State Senate. I'd like to congratulate him on tonight's election results and I look forward to seeing him continue his service for the state of Tennessee."
Pakis-Gillon meanwhile conceded defeat. She released this statement:
"I ran this race for all the people of this wonderful district, and for the people of the great state of Tennessee, to make sure they had a chance to have their voice heard. The people have chosen a different voice, and I wish Senator-Elect Kelsey the best for his year in Nashville.
"All of us will stay involved in the quest to better the community we love. The neighbors that I have talked to throughout the district want the focus to stay on the community, building jobs and a better place for all of us to live and raise our families. I am hopeful and optimistic that newly elected Senator Kelsey will do just that. This district is becoming more diverse, as are the needs of the citizens of the district.
"I am extremely proud of the campaign we have run. The volunteers who have given their time these past couple of months have given me and the people of District 31 an invaluable gift. They have shown determination, caring, and a desire to continually improve the community in which they live. For that I want to thank all of them and all of my supporters. We came up short today, and it's tough to take. But I assure you that we will stay active and we will stay involved. Thank you all."
White's victory in the District 83 Republican primary means that he will match up in a January 12th general election with Democrat Guthrie Castle, who was unopposed in his primary, and independent John Andreucetti.