Lee orders state Capitol flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of former Rep. Ben West Jr.

Former Rep. Ben West Jr., a 26-year member of the state House, died last week at age 78. Republican Gov. Bill Lee has ordered flags at the state Capitol to be flown at half-staff on Saturday in the former lawmaker’s memory.

West, a Democrat, represented the Hermitage, Donelson, and Old Hickory portions of Nashville until his retirement in 2010. His father, Ben West Sr., was the mayor of Nashville from 1951 to 1963. His brother, Jay, was a former vice mayor and lobbyist, who died in 2017.

West considered a bid for Congress when then-U.S. Rep. Bob Clement (D-Nashville) was considering a bid to statewide office. West ultimately decided against running and the seat was won by Democrat Jim Cooper.

West had a flair for the bombastic when he was at the Statehouse, sometimes quarreling publicly with is colleagues but often defusing tension with a joke. He angered then-House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) through his vocal opposition to a state income tax in the early 2000s — and his embrace of protesters who circled the Capitol beeping their horns. But Naifeh kept West on as a committee chairman until he asked to step down from leadership in 2007.

In one 2001 floor exchange, West upset then-Rep. Frank Buck (D-Dowelltown) by trying to have one of his bills sent back to committee. Buck later urged colleagues at a caucus meeting not to let philosophical differences become personal. West, who had quietly walked to the podium from behind, grabbed Buck’s head with both hands, and planted a big kiss on the side of his face — to howls of laughter.

West was a gun rights advocate, sponsoring a bill creating a special license plate for members of the National Rifle Association and bringing legislation seeking to allow handgun carry permit holders to be armed in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. He took the latter measure off notice after the Columbine shootings in 1999 (it became law several years later under a different lawmaker’s sponsorship).

While West did the traditional hazing of freshman members when they passed their first bills on the floor, he was also known for his temper. At a 2006 meeting of his Consumer and Employee Affairs committee, West was outraged that it took seven minutes for a quorum to assemble. Hers’s a roundup of what happend from a contemporary issue of The Tennessee Journal:

Declaring that “1:30 means 1:30,” West instructed the clerk to count as “absent” anyone else who came in late. Rep. Jim Hackworth (D-Clinton) asked if a tardy member would be allowed to vote. West answered in the affirmative, adding that he was “not stupid.” “How can they vote if they’re absent?” asked Rep. Larry Turner (D-Memphis). Two minutes later, Rep. Bubba Pleasant (R-Arlington) entered the room and took a seat in the audience, later explaining that he didn’t see his nameplate anywhere. When West noticed him, the chairman, who had calmed down, invited Pleasant to “come up and join us.”

The state Republican Party in demanded that West apologize for what it called  “racist and derogatory” comments about his 2006 election opponent, Juan Borgess. At a Democratic breakfast, in a clip that popped up on YouTube, West said “there was a Hispanic, Republican police officer who ran against me. I’m still trying to figure out what the hell that is.” West said there was nothing racist about the remark.

As he was preparing to retire, then-House Speaker Kent Williams (I-Elizabethton) asked him to come up ad preside over the chamber briefly. After taking the gavel, West asked chief clerk Burney Durham whether, “if a duly elected speaker appoints an individual to serve as speaker for one bill,” the appointed speaker is empowered to adjourn the House sine die. Durham replied that it might be best to wait on an adjournment resolution from the Senate.

After leaving office, West endorsed Republican candidates for Nashville seats in the legislature, including Jim Gotto’s challenge of incumbent Democratic Rep. Darren Jernigan in 2014 and Robert Duvall’s 2012 bid against then-Rep. Sherry Jones, a Democrat who left office last year. Both challenges failed.

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