One of the leading liberals in the state legislature will retire at the end of this year, an announcement that could ripple through races for city hall and the statehouse.
Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said Thursday on the floor of the state House of Representatives that he will not run for re-election this fall. One of the Capitol's most well-liked lawmakers, Turner left open the door to running for Nashville mayor in 2015.
Turner has represented parts of East Nashville and Old Hickory since 2000, and he has led the Democratic caucus since 2009. A firefighter and labor leader, Turner clashed with party elders early in his career, yet he will leave as one of Democrats' most forceful spokesmen.
Turner frequently turned his rhetoric on Republicans, but behind the scenes, he appeared to enjoy a productive working relationship with the supermajority.
"He's extremely popular because he just has a great personality, and I will just really miss Mike Turner," said House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville. "I've been in the minority party. It's a difficult job, and I think he's done it well."
Turner led his caucus through lean times, with the number of Democrats in the House dwindling to 27 members this session from 49 members in 2009. As chairman, Turner's responsibilities included recruiting Democratic candidates for the House, raising money and aiding their campaigns.
But the party's poor fortunes do not appear to have damaged his standing with supporters. Many thrilled to his outspokenness on issues such as gay marriage, inequality and racism.
Turner, 59, reached the height of his power in the first two years of his chairmanship, when he shepherded some of Gov. Phil Bredesen's major initiatives through an evenly divided House.
"That was a lot of fun," he said. "Then of all of a sudden you get put to the backbench a little bit, and that part's not as fun.
"It's fun to throw bombs at them sometimes. ... But it's time for me to move on and open up a leadership spot."
Turner said he plans to remain as caucus chairman through the next election. He also said he hopes to travel with his wife, Dinah, and three daughters before two of them get married in the next year.
Turner hinted that one of his daughters eventually might run for his seat, though he doubted it would be this year.
Several young Democrats from the East Nashville and Germantown areas quickly expressed interest in succeeding Turner, though none of them were ready to commit to a race just yet. Democratic officials said they think the district is safely in their party's column after President Barack Obama won it handily in 2012, when Turner ran unopposed.
Among the potential candidates are Metro Councilman Anthony Davis; Zak Kelley, senior policy advisor to state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the House Democratic leader; Wade Munday, treasurer of the Tennessee Democratic Party; software developer Freddie O'Connell; Tennessee Health Department procurement officer Eric Richardson, a former soldier who was wounded in Afghanistan; and former Tennessee Democratic Party executive director Jennifer Buck Wallace, now the Tennessee development director for Organizing for Action.
Meanwhile, a Turner campaign for mayor could bring a strong pro-labor voice to that race, which is likely to be crowded with candidates seeking to succeed Mayor Karl Dean, who took office in 2007.
"I am going to look at that," he said. "That's a little ways off yet, but I'm interested."
Turner spoke only about a minute on the House floor Thursday. He told lawmakers he'd enjoyed making friends across party lines.
"I've served here 14 years, and I can honestly say there's no one I've served with I don't personally like. And I've tried not to like some of you," Turner said. "This is a hard place to quit."
Several lawmakers filed past his desk afterward to extend their good wishes. Sitting down with reporters later, wearing a blue tie decorated with donkeys, Turner said he regrets stepping down when Democrats are far in the minority.
He also reminisced about his role in trying to unseat then House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh early in his tenure and one of his first pieces of legislation, a bill meant to prevent abuse of circus elephants. The proposal sparked a firestorm, with lobbyists and reporters packing into the small, remote office where Naifeh had banished him.
It would be one of the only times, a cameraman quipped, that Turner would fight on behalf of elephants.