Bitter Tennessee House GOP Caucus elections reflect divisions

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, center, announced Tuesday she is creating a task force to propose ways to improve access to health care in Tennessee. (Samuel M. Simpkins/The Tennessean via AP)
photo House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

NASHVILLE - After weeks of whooping, hollering and anonymous blog attacks, Tennessee House Republicans last week decided their top leadership contests.

From all outward appearances, it was a reaffirmation of the status quo.

House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville was nominated for a fourth term, defeating challenger Rep. Jimmy Matlock of Lenoir City in a 40-30 vote. And Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin, the GOP Caucus chairman, beat Rep. Mike Carter of Ooltewah, 42-29, for majority leader.

Tennessee House, Senate Nominations

Tennessee House Republicans elect Casada to replace McCormick as majority leader Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell nominated for fourth term TN Senate GOP unanimously nominates McNally for speaker Given the GOP's supermajority of 74-25 over Democrats, Harwell is expected to win easy re-election in the 110th General Assembly that will be sworn into office Jan. 10.But this was a closer contest than Harwell is used to having. And it remains to be seen how or if Harwell will address the ideological and personal differences or feelings of exclusion riling a number of Republicans.Before last week's vote, Harwell told House members their unity is stronger than their differences."This past year has been a difficult one on this body, but I commend you for remaining focused on what is important," Harwell said.She reminded colleagues what they have achieved since winning control of the House in 2010 elections and working with a new Republican governor, Bill Haslam: eliminating inheritance and gift taxes, twice lowering the sales tax on food, low debt, raising school standards and being recognized nationally for student achievement gains as well as recruitment of new companies."I will stand on that conservative record any time, anywhere," she declared.Still, social conservatives in particular have grumbled about Harwell and top leadership, not to mention Haslam. The governor vetoed their bill to make the Holy Bible state government's official book, and their efforts to override the veto fizzled. They have seen other failures, too, including a bid to make students use school restrooms that correspond to their sex at birth.And while any number of bills favorable to gun owners have passed, some members and groups argue lawmakers haven't gone nearly far enough and have killed their bills in committee. Some blamed Harwell and the other leadership.Then there was Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, who was finally expelled in September after an attorney general's investigation found he had sexually harassed more than a dozen women.A number of conservatives didn't like the process leadership used, thought Durham had been singled out, or both.Before last week's vote, Matlock told caucus members: "you said to me, 'Jimmy we need more transparency. We need the opportunity to be at the table. We want our voices heard. We want to be a part of this.' You should be. We need better communication and ability for each member to have a voice."Those issues carried into the GOP Caucus chairmanship contest between Rep. Kevin Brooks, of Cleveland, and Rep. Ryan Williams, of Cookeville."We've got to re-institute and rebuild that trust, rebuild that caucus unity," Brooks told colleagues.Williams said that during his six years in the House, the caucus is "sometimes disjointed, all the same ideas, all the same beliefs but we're divided up in tribes."He promised to "try and unite the tribes again," was won the contest.Nowhere was the anger more evident than in the majority leader contest between Casada and Carter. Critics, including an anonymously written political blog, charged for months that while Harwell went after Durham, allies of hers had committed similar offenses.Days before the caucus elections, the blog attacked Casada, often seen as the most staunch conservative in leadership. The blog posted a video showing Casada in a Nashville restaurant having drinks with a young woman.In a dramatic speech to caucus members, Casada accused the blog's writer or writers of seeking to "sabotage" his election, destroy his reputation and wreck his marriage by implying untruthfully that he had been unfaithful to his wife.He charged the video didn't include footage showing nine other people there, including the woman's boyfriend. That was confirmed to a reporter by another attendee.Casada condemned the post as "outrageous tactics." Carter denounced the video and emphasizing he had nothing to do with it. Rep. Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, who is stepping down as majority leader, later said he thinks the video helped Casada win.Asked by reporters after her victory how she would bring Republicans together, Harwell replied that "Jimmy Matlock and I were sitting together and having a good conversation" after the vote."When you get to be the super majority, when you're 74 members strong, of course we're going to, we're having competition for every one of these seats," Harwell added. "And they've been close every way. You would expect that and I actually think it's healthy."As for how she would address any members who feel ignored, Harwell said, "I don't lead the caucus. I'm the speaker of the House and I think all of the members of the House feel like I'm approachable. My door is open both to Democrats and Republican members of the House of Representatives."For his part, McCormick said he thinks talk about discord is overstated."I think you've got some people who are determined to be unhappy," he said. "I think in general the new caucus is going to come around to the leadership team except for those who refuse to be happy."McCormick said personal ambition is part of the mix, adding "it's virtually impossible to get 70 people, many of whom are ambitious," to agree sometimes.For his part, Matlock said he and Harwell are friends and he's looking forward to working "with her and the entire caucus."But he said he "absolutely" sees "philosophical differences" leading to problems."When I was speaking it was more what I felt and many, many others had told me [about Harwell's leadership], not just all the right-wingers that's been alleged," said Matlock, himself a staunch conservative."I felt frustrations throughout," he added. "But Beth's pretty savvy politically. I think she'll take that news and information and go back and say where can we find some common ground here that will maybe address some of these issues. And I fully expect her to try and do that."Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.