Tennessee state Rep. JoAnne Favors: 'Time to take a different path'

Tennessee state Rep. JoAnne Favors visited the Times Free Press for a meeting with the editorial board at the newspaper's offices on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, in Chattanooga.

NASHVILLE - State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, announced Monday she won't seek re-election in 2018 and instead will retire at the end of her current term.

"It has taken a lot of introspection and talking to some close friends and family," said Favors, first elected to the House in 2004, in an interview.

Favors, now in her seventh term, is the only black representative now serving in the Hamilton County legislative delegation and just the third from the county elected to the General Assembly since the end of the 19th century.

A retired registered nurse and former health facilities administrator, Favors said her decision was based in large part on her responsibilities for taking care of her great-grandchildren and her mother, among other considerations.

"I finally decided it was the best thing for me at this point," said Favors, a former Hamilton County commissioner, who added the decision also will allow her to devote more time to her writing.

In a subsequent news release, Favors expressed "sincere gratitude to the thousands of voters who elected me to serve seven very productive terms in the Tennessee General Assembly." She called it a "distinct honor to serve my constituents and the citizens in Tennessee. I have made every effort to work for the good of the people.

"Now it is time to take a different path which will allow me to devote more time to my five generations of family members, including my 94-year-old mother, my church members and my many friends," Favors added.

Favors' decision not to seek re-election in 2018 creates a rare open legislative seat opportunity for the politically ambitious in Chattanooga's black community. The district, which includes parts of downtown Chattanooga, Alton Park and Brainerd, votes Democratic. It is racially mixed.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville said he's sorry Favors will leave. He noted she has had a "fantastic career" in the General Assembly and her role as a go-to person for caucus members on health care issues will be missed.

"She was obviously someone who could talk with great authority on health care," Stewart said of Favors, who in a decades-long professional career worked not only as a nurse but later served on the Erlanger Health System board of trustees and once headed the Dodds Avenue and then-Alton Park health care clinics.

"We looked to her guidance on the Affordable Care Act [Obamacare]. She made herself the Legislature's leading expert," Stewart said. "We're going to have to work hard to fill that void."

During her time in Nashville, the former Chattanooga State associate professor has been on the forefront of issues ranging from health care to battling, unsuccessfully, against Tennessee's photo identification requirement for voters.

Last spring, she once again assailed the photo-ID law passed by GOP majority lawmakers, citing the case of her 94-year-old mother who was born at home and never issued a birth certificate. Such documents are required to get the photo ID necessary to register to vote.

Earlier this year, Favors and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, teamed up to fight unsuccessfully to require Tennessee school buses to come equipped with three-point safety harnesses. The effort came after the Nov. 21, 2016, crash of a Woodmore Elementary School bus in her district that claimed the lives of six children and injured others.

The retired nurse marshaled emergency room physicians on duty the day of the crash to describe in vivid detail to legislative committees the deaths and injuries of the children and explain how the safety harnesses could have prevented many of them.

As critics continued to charge the bill was too expensive, Favors doggedly refused to give up, revising the bill and substantially paring down costs. The bill made it to the Finance Committee, where Favors left it until the 2018 session.

Favors also joined with Hamilton County legislative colleagues and then-Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey in 2007 in a successful push by a number of school systems to spur revisions to Tennessee's Basic Education Program funding formula for local schools.

In 2015 and 2016, she joined in support of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's ultimately unsuccessful effort to extend Medicaid health care coverage to several hundred thousand Tennesseans under the governor's proposed Insure Tennessee expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Stewart said she made herself an expert on the issue. But Senate Republicans rejected the legislation.

Favors now serves as House Democratic whip and is vice chairwoman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators. Earlier this year, Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell appointed her to her Opioid Task Force.

Reflecting on her service, Favors said it's been "a good feeling for me to help people I've known all my life. And having support from so many physicians and clergy."

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who as a state senator served with Favors, tweeted late Monday an homage to the retiring lawmaker.

"As a legislator, she has stood up for #CHA; as a leader, she has pushed up to be more equitable; as a friend, she has displayed incredible kindness. Thank you JoAnne Favors."

It was not immediately clear Monday who might step up to run for her seat. Efforts to reach Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairwoman Khristy Wilkinson and several leaders in the black community were unsuccessful.

Contact staff writer Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.