Jimmy Matlock challenges House Speaker Harwell for chamber's top post

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, speaks during a news conference at the state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday, June 30, 2016, about a health coverage task force's proposals for Medicaid expansion in Tennessee. From right behind her are Republican Reps. Steve McManus of Memphis and Roger Kane of Knoxville. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

NASHVILLE - House Transportation Committee Chairman Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, announced Tuesday he will challenge Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell for the chamber's top post.

"Honesty, integrity, and transparency are values that I not only believe in, but expect of myself in all that I do," the five-term businessman said in a statement. "These values are what have compelled me toward the decision I am making today."

photo Rep. Jimmy Matlock

His primary goal, Matlock said, "is to help our caucus become what it was always meant to be; a caucus that stands for justice and truth, a caucus that has bold and creative ideas, a caucus that at its heart stands for the people of our great state. I am ready to guide us forward, unite our causes, and provide support to each of you."

While he made no overt criticism of Harwell, who became the first female speaker in Tennessee history in 2010, the speaker has come under heavy criticism from Democrats as well as some fellow Republicans for her handling of allegations of sexual harassment involving Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin.

After allegations about Durham's alleged behavior emerged publicly earlier this year, Harwell said none of the state Capitol female staffers, interns and lobbyists complained directly to her. She later joined Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and then Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's call for Durham to resign, which he refused to do.

Under pressure from minority Democrats, the speaker, who has been seen as a potential 2018 gubernatorial candidate, eventually set up a House ad hoc committee to look into allegations.

Members enlisted Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery to look into the allegations and Slatery's report last month listed 22 women who complained of inappropriate behavior, including sexual harassment, by Durham.

Armed with Slatery's report, the panel recommended the 32-year-old Durham be expelled. Durham refused to resign but he suspended his re-election campaign and last week lost his election to a new term.

Earlier, Harwell also called together a panel to establish new rules regarding sexual harassment and reporting of cases.

But some Republicans objected to the ad hoc committee's enlisting of Slatery to investigate Durham, saying that although they were no fans of Durham they were concerned about setting a precedent. Still others have assailed the state Capitol's decades-old reputation as a place where affairs sometimes occur.

In 2009, for example, then-Sen. Paul Stanley, a West Tennessee Republican, made national headlines when he became the target of a blackmail effort by a man whose girlfriend, a legislative intern, had an affair with Stanley.

At least one other House Republican has been mentioned as a potential challenger to Harwell. Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, best known for sponsoring a bill that sought to make the Holy Bible Tennessee government's official book, is said to be weighing a bid.

Harwell spokeswoman Kara Owen said in an email that Harwell "does plan to run for Speaker again, but her first priority is her own re-election campaign, and assisting her Republican colleagues with their races."

House Republicans account for 73 of the House's 99 seats.

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