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Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, right, speaks as Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick listens during a January talk at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Watson said Friday he doesn't intend to seek the speaker's position now that Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has announced his retirement.

NASHVILLE — State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, says he doesn't intend to run for the top Senate post being vacated by Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and will instead back Senate Finance Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, in his leadership bid.

"Sen. McNally has been a mentor to me," Watson said Friday, later adding, "I think Sen. McNally has earned the right of first refusal and I respect that. And I respect that he has toiled in the vineyards for the Republican Caucus in both a minority and now in a majority position."

Ramsey had appointed Watson as speaker pro tempore, the top appointed post in the Senate, and there had been speculation that Watson might run.

"I think the caucus would do well with the experience and wisdom of a Randy McNally," Watson said. "And we've got a bunch of our members up for re-election this fall. And we need to pay a lot of attention to that and make sure we help our members who have general election opponents.

"And," Watson added, "we don't need to be distracted by lengthy who's-going-to-do-what about the speaker's position.

Watson is the first vice chairman of McNally's Finance Committee.

After demurring about running to the Times Free Press on Wednesday, McNally confirmed to the Knoxville News Sentinel on Friday that he is running for the post.

"Anybody following Ron Ramsey, it's going to be difficult," McNally told the newspaper. "I'm planning on running for speaker. I had to think long and hard before I planned on making the run, and I did talk with Speaker Ramsey and I have talked with every member of the caucus."

He said he would be a transitional figure who would not keep the office very long.

Others weighing bids include Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville; Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jack Johnson, R-Franklin.

Norris told reporters earlier this week that "I'm thinking about it, sure, but Ron Ramsey is the lieutenant governor and speaker until he's not."

Ramsey stunned most of the state's political establishment earlier this week when he said he will not run for re-election. He said he will return to his Blountville home and, among other things, spend more time with his young grandchildren.

The auctioneer was elected by GOP senators in 2007 to become the first Republican Senate speaker since Reconstruction as he and the emergent GOP majority upended then-Democratic Speaker John Wilder's 36-year tenure.

Now Senate Republicans face their first power transition.

First elected to the state House in 1978 and then to the Senate, McNally rose to public prominence in the late 1980s. That was when it came out that McNally had posed as a dishonest politician to help the FBI's Operation Rocky Top investigation into bribery and public corruption at the highest levels of Tennessee government.

The thrust of the investigation, which resulted in some 50 convictions on charges ranging from illegal gambling to bribery, was Tennessee's state-regulated charitable bingo industry. It had been taken over by professional gamblers who bought operating licenses with the connivance of state officials.

McNally wore a wire for the feds when the state's former chief bingo inspector, who had become a bingo association chief and lobbyist, offered him a $10,000 bribe on a horse racing bill.

Lobbyist W.D. "Donnie" Walker, of Marion County, went to prison. So did his pal Jim Long, of Marion County, the former head and lobbyist of the "The Association" of professional gamblers.

By the time all was said and done, Secretary of State Gentry Crowell, whose office regulated bingo, committed suicide. State Rep. Tommy Burnett went to prison for his involvement in an illegal bingo operation. And state Rep. Ted Ray Miller committed suicide after being indicted on corruption charges.

McNally, 72, also confirmed to the News Sentinel that he sees himself as a transitional figure and doesn't see staying speaker, if elected, for more than two two-year terms.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-2550-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.

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