Tennessee's first female state House speaker, Beth Harwell, says GOP can shine

Tennessee's first female state House speaker, Beth Harwell, says GOP can shine

January 4th, 2011 by Andy Sher in News

Beth Harwell

* What: Tennessee House Republican nominee for speaker

* Age: 53

* Education: Ph.D. in political science, Vanderbilt University; master's degree, George Peabody College; bachelor's of arts, David Lipscomb University

* Occupation: Legislator, former college professor

* Family: Husband, Sam, three children

NASHVILLE -- While preparing to assume office next week as Tennessee's first female state House speaker, Republican Beth Harwell says her party's newfound dominance in state government presents the GOP a chance "to shine."

"This is our opportunity to show we can govern and we can lead," said Harwell, a 22-year House veteran and former state Republican Party chairwoman.

Harwell, 53, is the Republican nominee to helm the 99-member House chamber. The election of a new speaker will be among the first orders of business as the 107th General Assembly convenes for its annual session one week from today.

In November, the GOP won 14 seats in the House and increased their numbers from 50 to 64, giving them a 30-seat advantage over the 34 Democrats.

Democratic House Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, noting the GOP's huge House advantage, said his caucus doesn't plan to nominate a candidate of its own. That leaves Harwell as the presumptive speaker barring any surprise.

In the November elections, Republicans in the state Senate increased their advantage over Democrats from 19-14 to 20-14. Voters also elected Republican Bill Haslam as governor to succeed Democrat Phil Bredesen.

Turner sees Harwell becoming a "good" speaker "if she stays true to who Beth Harwell is."

"She could be pulled in one direction or another if she's not careful," he said. "It'll be interesting to see how fractious they [Republicans] are over there."

In November, Harwell won the Republican Caucus' nomination for speaker following a tough fight with then-GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, R-College Grove. Tea party and gun-rights activists backed Casada and attacked Harwell repeatedly as a "RINO" -- shorthand for "Republican in Name Only."

Harwell insisted she is a conservative and cited such stances as her 2002 opposition to a state income tax.

With Tennessee and the rest of the nation still recovering from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Harwell said the "No. 1 issue" for state Republicans is "job creation."

"We're all looking forward to supporting Gov. Haslam and what he has in store for really creating an environment that's conducive for job creation in this state," said Harwell, who served as co-chairman of Haslam's campaign.

"Second priority is the budget. We've got to pass a balanced budget without raising taxes."

Harwell said the "third and final priority for me is to keep us moving forward on education reform. We've made some great strides in that area. We can't back up."

She sees the pro-business agenda including passage of legislation capping jury awards for noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. She has asked the new Republican majority leader, Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, to look at what regulations should be cut to help businesses.

A longtime supporter of charter schools, Harwell also is interested in an expected effort to lift the current cap on the number of charter schools in Tennessee.

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, who currently shares an office suite with Harwell, describes her as "methodical" with the ability to think things through.

"I think she'll do a fine job," said Dean, the new Republican floor leader. "We really have nowhere to go but up. She's going to provide good leadership, I'll assure you of that."

During the speaker nomination battle, Harwell came under fire from gun advocates for her opposition to allowing handgun-permit holders to go armed in restaurants and other establishments selling alcohol, provided they do not drink.

Shortly after her nomination in November, she was asked about expected efforts to repeal the handgun permit law and simply allow gun owners to go armed.

"I don't see that coming forth in this General Assembly," she told reporters. "We addressed a good number of gun bills last session, and I feel that clearly we received a mandate from the public that we need to be focused on jobs and education and the economy this session."

Asked last week about gun issues as well as other proposals from the party's right wing such as enacting an Arizona-style law requiring police to check the immigration status of people they've stopped, Harwell said, "certainly our priorities are jobs and education, but there's time to look at those [other] issues. If they're important to the Republican Caucus, we'll address them."

In running for the caucus nomination, Harwell didn't make a big to-do about the GOP's opportunity to make state history by electing her the House's first female speaker. But the former political science professor and mother of three has gotten plenty of attention since, including from her own daughter.

"It's really kind of refreshing when your teenage daughter can think you're cool and the fact I'm the first female speaker has not gone unnoticed," Harwell said. "She's excited about that."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.