By Zane Wyrick, Naifeh Center for Effective Leadership Intern
A mere five months ago, I was chosen to intern in the Tennessee General Assembly for the 108th session, where I served as a representative of both the University of Tennessee and the UT Institute for Public Service in the Naifeh Center for Effective Leadership.
In previous years, I would have had the privilege to intern under Democratic Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, a man whose reputation for leadership in the state is unparalleled and admiration for him echoes in the halls of the Tennessee Capitol. Due to his retirement last year, though, I did not have the opportunity to serve under the Speaker Emeritus; upon the beginning of the session however, the current Speaker Beth Harwell found that my services would be best utilized if I were to assist the newly elected Democratic Representative Darren Jernigan, of the Old Hickory and Hermitage areas of Nashville.
The first time that I got to meet Representative Jernigan, I was absolutely floored by the kindness and respect that radiated from him and washed upon those around him. He truly listened to the comments and suggestions from those around him along with the various representatives with whom he worked. Jernigan is a paraplegic, where a car accident nearly twenty years ago left him confined to a wheelchair and unable to perform some physical tasks. This in no way hindered him from bringing his unique energy, consideration, and leadership into the state legislature and working to represent his constituents and all Tennesseans in the best way possible.
While working for Jernigan, I saw how members and constituents of both political parties built opinions of him that were of high regards and esteem. Much of this was due to Jernigan’s approach to politics, where he has adopted a style that can be summed up best as listening before speaking. Whether he proposes an amendment to a bill or speaks and comments in a one-on-one meeting with a constituent, he obviously puts much consideration and thought into everything he says, and because of this, he has developed a bi-partisan and highly regarded reputation as a representative–a quality that has followed him from his work as a Nashville Metro Councilman, and a quality I will strive to emulate.
Not only is Jernigan a voice for his constituents, but he also represents a group of people that are sadly under-represented in our political system–the disabled. Jernigan has fought an unnecessary battle to reach his current position in society, where many people believed that due to his disability, he would be unable to perform the tasks necessary to represent others in government–even his opponent when he initially ran for Metro Council insinuated as such. Over time, though, he has proven how this perception of the disabled is completely erroneous, and has shown how America continues to need to have a real discussion on how we as a society interact and respect members of the disabled community. I find it absolutely inspiring to see Jernigan join the folds of elected officials at the state level, as that shows real progress has been made in America, and it gives him a chance to speak for some of the most disrespected members of our society.
If the goal of the Institute for Public Service’s Naifeh Center for Effective Leadership is to augment leadership qualities in those who guide the state, surely Jernigan is an exemplary candidate to be one of those great leaders. After Speaker Naifeh’s retirement, I could not think of someone who I would rather have worked for this past semester than Jernigan. With his thoughtful, receptive, and moderate approach to politics, he holds all of the qualities that signify an effective leader, and I thank the Institute for Public Service for giving me the opportunity to learn the techniques of leadership under him.