Despite Wide Legislative Power, Harwell Has Plenty of Work Ahead

By ROBERT SHERBORNE

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell today sits at the pinnacle of legislative power, overseeing a House Republican majority of better than 2-1.

And she knows she has her work cut out for her.

Harwell must move her Republican members – almost six dozen of them, with divergent views and different agendas – toward consensus on key issues she believes are important.

“It will be a challenge,” Harwell says, “but I think we’ll get there.”

The issues dear to her include:

– Balancing the state budget, which is required by law, but can be “tough,” she says.

– Reducing the sales tax on food.

– Improving the state’s education system.

Fact Box:

Beth Harwell (R)
Tennessee House speaker
Represents District 56 in southern Davidson County, including Belle Meade, Forest Hills and Oak Hill 
Born in 1957 in Norristown, Pa.
Married, with three children
Former Associate Professor, Belmont University
Education: Ph.D. Vanderbilt University, M.S. George Peabody College, B.A. David Lipscomb University
Contact: 301 6th Avenue North
Suite 19 Legislative Plaza
Nashville, TN 37243
Phone (615) 741-0709 
speaker.beth.harwell@capitol.tn.gov

– Revising the state’s workers compensation law, which provides financial help for workers injured on the job.

A school voucher program also will be proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam, and Harwell says she will work to get it passed although she believes it will be “difficult” legislation.

Some of her members also want to see an expansion of gun-owner rights in the state – something “that is not a high priority for me.”

One proposal would allow gun owners with carry permits to take their guns to work in the trunks of their cars. This pits them against some business owners who want to keep guns off their property and out of their parking lots.

“I believe we can reach agreement and get through it quickly,” Harwell says.

Harwell, a professor of political science by profession with a doctorate from Vanderbilt University, knows something about persuasion and consensus building.

When she first ran for office in the mid-1980s, she ran as a Republican in then-heavily Democratic Davidson County. She lost.

But Harwell kept going, her Republican philosophy and her belief in limited government shaped, in part, she says, by former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker.

As a youngster, Harwell says, she had helped care for her grandmother and together they had watched the Watergate hearings. Harwell says she was fascinated by the process. She was especially impressed by Baker, who played a key role after winning election as the first Republican U.S. senator from Tennessee since Reconstruction.

Later, Harwell says, she decided she would read the complete platforms of both the Republican and Democratic parties. She came away a Republican.

So, after losing her first legislative race, Harwell says, she spent the next two years deeply involving herself in the West Nashville community. In 1988 she ran again – and won.

Over the next two decades, she worked with both Republicans and Democrats to help craft and pass legislation that reformed the state’s welfare system, fostered charter schools and stiffened penalties for sex offenders, among other things.

From 2001 to 2004 she served as chair of the state Republican Party. In 2010 Harwell was elected Tennessee’s first female speaker of the House.

Now, some wonder how well she – or anyone – can manage the competing and conflicting ideas of her members while still moving the House forward.

Already Harwell has taken steps to consolidate her authority.

She began the term by significantly altering the House committee structure, breaking up some committees and combining others.

Harwell says this was done to equalize the workflow of different committees. But she also named several new committee chairmen.

She also oversaw adoption of a new rule that no member could introduce more than 15 bills.

“You’ve got some strong-willed people up here,” Harwell acknowledges.

But, she says, “I’m surprised by the quality of the people here. Every one of our people works for a living. We all live under the laws we have. So, I believe there is more uniting us than dividing us.”