Among reporters at the Capitol, he was known as the Mighty Naifeh in his heyday when he reigned like a mob boss as House speaker. He terrorized Republicans then, routinely dispatching their bills to die in three-member subcommittees of Democrats. Heads bowed, Republicans were forced to go into Naifeh's office to plead for the smallest favors.
Oddly, after Republicans took control of the House and rendered Democrats irrelevant, Naifeh became lovable in his impotence. He was content to rail against GOP bills in committee meetings. Republicans listened politely, treating Naifeh like some eccentric uncle, then passed the bills anyway. This morning after Naifeh made his announcement, Republicans rose to applaud his 38 years of service and even let him preside over the House for a few minutes for a little nostalgic fun.
"Mr. Speaker, I went to the restroom and came back. Did something happen? Something that I need to know about?" Rep. Phillip Johnson asked. Naifeh banged the gavel.
"Mr. Sergeant at Arms, have that man removed!" he barked as the House laughed.
Here's reaction to Naifeh's announcement from House Democratic leaders:
“Speaker Naifeh is now and always has been a smart, pragmatic, pro-business legislator who put people first. He rose quickly through the ranks to Speaker of the House, where he served with distinction for 18 years. His accomplishments are too numerous to list, but there is no doubt that his impact is felt by average Tennesseans each and everyday. On a personal level, Speaker Naifeh is my friend. When I have needed him, he has been there every time. While I will miss his leadership and knowledge on every issue, I will miss seeing him everyday during session most of all. I know I speak for our entire caucus when I wish him luck in wherever life takes him next. I doubt we’ve heard the last of Speaker Naifeh!”
—Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley), House Democratic Leader
“For me, Jimmy Naifeh has always been the Lebanese Lion. He has done more for the people of Tennessee than most of us will ever know. He’s a hard worker, he’s well-informed and he’s not afraid to stand-up for the issues and the people he cares about. When he goes home this fall, our caucus and this House will be a much emptier place. I will miss him, but I wish him the best in everything he does in the future.”
—Rep. Mike Turner (D-Old Hickory), House Democratic Caucus Chairman
“Jimmy Naifeh was my Speaker, a mentor and most of all my close friend. Over the years, we’ve become like brother and sister. I tell him exactly what I think and he tells me exactly what he thinks, that’s just how we work. I will miss his honesty, his integrity and the passion he brings to every issue. But most of all, I will miss him personally. Although, I bet it’s a lot quieter when he leaves!”
—Rep. Lois DeBerry (D-Memphis), Speaker Pro-Temp Emeritus