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Councilman John Akouri, former Washington, DC Press Secretary & Capitol Hill Advisor, is President & CEO of the Lebanese American Chamber of Commerce.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lebanese American Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives Jimmy Naifeh's Political Maneuver Caps Career of Power

(NASHVILLE, TN)...From The Tennessean - The lawmakers were nervous. On the morning of Jan. 13, an hour before the election of Tennessee's House speaker, Democrats crowded into the Old Supreme Court Chambers and barred the doors. Trusted staff members were told to stay out, and reporters prowled nearby. One lawmaker, en route from the bedside of his ailing wife, was updated by phone. At the front of the chamber, Speaker Jimmy Naifeh faced the hushed group and told them that he had been unable to gain a 50th vote from a Republican to secure his speakership and for the party to keep control of the House. And then he asked them to vote for Republican Kent Williams instead.
That request from Naifeh and his leadership team set in motion a political carousel that has yet to stop moving, and probably will be remembered as the most audacious — some would say deceptive — political maneuver in Naifeh's 18 years as House speaker, the longest tenure in Tennessee's history. The move to seat Williams, which thwarted Majority Leader Jason Mumpower's bid for the post, capped Naifeh's official tenure calling the shots in the House. Naifeh's post-speaker role is unclear, but some lawmakers, including Naifeh himself, expect the Covington Democrat to still wield at least some power in the chamber, even if it is from his desk in the back row of the House and his modest office on the first floor of the War Memorial Building, far from the sprawling speaker's suite he inhabited in the heart of Legislative Plaza for so many years. "I'm satisfied with my time as speaker, even though I would like to be serving as speaker right now," he said.
Quick to praise, punish
Naifeh's legacy is a long one, of more than 30 years in the General Assembly, 18 of them as speaker. During that time, he created legions of fierce supporters and seeded an army of equally fierce critics, but even Republicans express admiration for his ability to lead the state's scrappy, sometimes quarrelsome House. Former Republican Gov. Winfield Dunn, one of the six governors during Naifeh's decades in the House, described Naifeh as a "partisan Democrat to the core." While he would have preferred that the GOP been in charge of the House, he said Naifeh has "earned the right to be appreciated by the people of the state. He's been devoted to his responsibilities and has managed the House very well," Dunn said.
Naifeh's done so through a blend of reward and intimidation. Both parties say he is true to his word, quick to praise and quick to punish. At all times, he was in the eye of House politics, whether huddling with lobbyists in front of his office, whispering one-on-one in the warren of hallways behind the hearing rooms, back-slapping over drinks at Morton's steakhouse or at the family's famed Coon Supper in Covington. Former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, who was House majority leader under Naifeh, said that he was driven with constant attention to his legislative work and expected the same of his leadership team. Those who couldn't keep up, he said, didn't make it. "If he was awake, he was speaker, and I'm guessing that applied to the rest of the day, too. In many ways, that was who he was; that's how he saw himself," Purcell said.
Set his sights on the top
To outside eyes, Naifeh might appear indiscernible from other Tennessee politicians. In reality, he came from a very different background. His parents were Lebanese immigrants, and his father "didn't speak a word of English" when he arrived in the United States, Naifeh said. In 1994, James Zogby, now the president of the Arab American Institute, listed Naifeh among prominent Arab-American elected officials around the country. In addition to the family store, Naifeh's father was deeply involved in the community and a member of the town board. He also founded a community institution that continues today: the Coon Supper, a seen-and-be-seen event for politicians who flock to Covington for a meal of raccoon or, for the faint of heart, chicken.
After attending the University of Tennessee and finishing a stint in the U.S. Army, Naifeh returned to Covington and decided to run for the House. He failed in his first try, in 1972, by only about a dozen votes. After that loss, he pledged to take nothing for granted again, and won in 1974 by about 1,500 votes. From the beginning, Naifeh knew he didn't want to be just another lawmaker, and set his sights on the House leadership. "I made a decision then that I was either going to get involved or I was going to get out," he said. "I wasn't going to be someone who was just up here." He had a quick rise. In 1977, he became the Democrats' floor leader, then majority leader in 1985, and finally speaker in 1991, after Ned McWherter was elected governor. McWherter, whom Naifeh considers his mentor, said that he and Naifeh worked well together, when both were in the legislature and after McWherter moved to the governor's office. Sometimes, McWherter would help Naifeh corral votes when needed.
"When he felt he needed to be strong, and couldn't get a majority or consensus, he tried to put one together," McWherter said, "and most of the time was very successful in making things happen, in his own way and his own style." Naifeh made ethics and House decorum a priority when he came in, but Lt. Gov. John Wilder in the Senate stymied Naifeh's ethics overhaul, ending a session without a vote on reforms that had been passed in the House. That strained the two men's relationship, but they eventually repaired it. There was the success of education reform passed under McWherter, but then the famous, multi-year battle over tax reform in Gov. Don Sundquist's administration, which culminated when Naifeh famously held open voting in a vain hope to land crucial votes on the income tax.
One of the major criticisms of Naifeh through his term was his marriage to lobbyist Betty Anderson, whom he married in 1995. Critics said that the relationship was improper for the top official in the House. That complaint continued as recently as 2008, when Anderson represented AT&T — though not as an active lobbyist — during heated talks over cable TV deregulation. The two divorced last year after several years of separation. Both have said that their marriage never swayed Naifeh's votes, and in fact may have worked against Anderson, with Naifeh casting votes against the interests of her clients. "A lot of people don't believe that, but that's just the way it was. There was some folks that thought she had an advantage being married to me. The fact is, she was probably at a disadvantage," Naifeh said. Anderson echoed that, saying that "Jimmy and I did our best to separate our political lives from our private lives." "I do not feel that I or my issues got special attention from him," she said.
His role is uncertain
Naifeh held sway with a powerful hand. In 2002, when House Democrats revolted against Naifeh and tried to elect Rep. Frank Buck in his place, he came down hard on the insurgents. One of them was Rep. Mike Turner, who lost his committee assignments. Naifeh later returned to him and restored his assignments, and Turner now considers him a good friend, Turner said. "It's not for the faint of heart to be somebody who is in legislative leadership positions. You've got to make tough decisions, and you're going to make people mad occasionally. You can't make everybody happy," Turner said. Mumpower, who had the speaker's gavel snatched from his hand by the machinations of Jan. 13, said that he admires how Naifeh led the House, and would likely have emulated some of the former speaker's tactics, had he been elected last month, and which he hopes will happen in 2010.
"I know that Speaker Naifeh has a lot of critics on the right, and we don't necessarily agree on policy issues, but his style was —sometimes it was a little too hard charging — but overall I think he operated things the way he had to make progress," he said. Today, Naifeh's role is uncertain. Minority Leader Gary Odom is widely credited with persuading Williams to seek the speakership with Democrats' support, a plan cemented less than 24 hours before the speaker's vote. Naifeh has a newly created title of speaker emeritus, which he says gives him no special rights or privileges. He has pledged to be nothing more than an adviser to Williams, the man he urged Democrats to support. And, he said, he will help Democrats regain their majority. If they did, he's interested in seeking the speakership yet again, even with the start of his eighth decade on the horizon. "That's just numbers," he scoffed.

JOHN AKOURI ONLINE NEWSROOM 'We will confront this mortal danger to all humanity. We will not tire, or rest, until the war on terror is won.' -- PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH Add to end of above"line without paranthesis when wanting to loop sound (( loop="-1">