No woman ever has held as much power in state government as will Nashville’s Beth Harwell beginning in January. Tennessee’s first madam speaker is making history in the state that has been one of America’s inviolable strongholds of good ol’ boy politics.
It’s enough to make a Mama Grizzly smile.
Until Harwell shook up the status quo this month by winning the Republican Party’s nomination as the next speaker of the House, the most powerful women in Tennessee’s political past probably were Peaches Simpkins, the tough-minded deputy to the governor in the Sundquist administration, and Anna Belle Clement O’Brien, a top aide to her brother, Gov. Frank Clement.
But both Simpkins and O’Brien were appointees and derived all their power from the men under whom they served. No woman in Tennessee ever has won her party’s nomination for governor or Senate — the only statewide offices that are elected here — and only a few have tried.
With the House now overrun with 64 Republicans — only two votes short of a super majority — Harwell can preside like a potentate if she chooses. Through her authority to name all the committee chairs and officers, she can exercise life-and-death decisions over almost all legislation.
Not since 1978 — when the legendary old bull Ned McWherter banged the gavel and Democrats reigned supreme with a 66-member majority — has a House speaker been so mighty.
“It’s an exciting opportunity,” the typically understated Harwell said of her new role as feminist champion. “My 16-year-old daughter for the first time told me I was cool. So there you go.”
In a rich irony, one of Harwell’s main advocates — Rep. Frank Niceley, a Republican from Strawberry Plains — said it was precisely because she is a woman that she was able to defeat her more conservative opponent, Glen Casada, in the Republican House speaker’s contest.
The House Republican political caucus chairman, Casada has been a champion of social conservative causes and enjoyed the backing of the tea party and the state’s gun lobby.
Harwell, a 53-year-old former state party chair and college political science professor, has compiled a much more moderate record in her 22 years representing her Green Hills district in the House. She has focused on welfare reform, education and children’s issues. Last year, she sponsored an expansion of charter schools that helped Tennessee win $500 million in President Obama’s Race to the Top competition for innovations in education.
In a City Paper interview suggesting that sexism remains alive and well at the state Capitol, Niceley cast Harwell’s nomination as a public-relations coup. As a “good lookin’ woman,” he said, she will put a more acceptable face on Tennessee’s sometimes off-putting brand of conservatism.
“People want us to be conservative. But you can’t be crazy about it. Glen’s like me. He attracts arrows. Beth deflects arrows. One’s about as conservative as the other, but the press will be a lot easier on Beth,” Niceley said.
“It’s the year of the conservative dark-headed woman,” he went on. “You’ve got Sarah Palin, you’ve got Michele Bachmann, you’ve got Nikki Haley. And Beth looks just like the rest of ’em.
“I told Beth this years ago: ‘What you’ve got going for you is you’re good lookin’ but women don’t hate you.’ Women hate a lot of other women. But Beth’s always been a good lookin’ woman that other women like. That’s a real asset in politics. If you can be a good lookin’ woman that other women like, you can go places in politics.”
Harwell disputes the notion that her gender played any part in her rise to power. Asked how it might affect her performance in office, she replied: “I don’t know that it will. When I talked to my caucus members, that issue never even really surfaced. So certainly I don’t think I was given this opportunity because I was female. But I’m happy that could also be part of history.”
Last week, Harwell sat down with reporters to talk about her priorities for the next legislative session. She emphasized jobs and the economy, played down social issues such as guns, and said she’d like to find ways to introduce new efficiencies into the operation of the notoriously disorganized House.
Q: As far as legislative priorities go, you’ve named the economy. Any specifics?
Harwell: Gov.-elect Haslam’s agenda, his job creation program, will be at the top. He has not released that. But certainly I have a caucus that understands the most important thing we can do is to have an environment that’s conducive to creating jobs, and that means fewer government jobs and lower taxes. Who creates jobs in Tennessee are small business owners, and we will always be loyal to them.
Q: What do you see the legislature doing on health care reform?
Harwell: Right now, it’s wait-and-see what our newly elected Congress is going to do on that critical issue. It has a very detrimental effect on state budgets.
Q: There was talk during the governor’s campaign about whether the state should repeal the handgun carry permit law. Do you see that happening?
Harwell: I don’t see that coming forth in this General Assembly. 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.
Q: Do you envision any operational changes in the House?
Harwell: I’m looking for ways for our proceedings to be efficient and effective. And I know you all join me that we’d like to have an efficient adjournment day, so we’re working on that.
Q: Could there be a cap on the number of bills that each legislator may introduce?
Harwell: That’s something our rules committee should look at. Certainly if we’ve heard anything from the public, it’s that they don’t want a lot of more regulations and mandates on their lives. So I think that would serve our caucus well to look at not introducing a lot of legislation this session.
Q: What about resolutions [honoring people and organizations]?
Harwell: I’d like to see that limited. A resolution from the General Assembly should mean a great deal, and we want to make sure that those people who are honored have done something very significant for the state of Tennessee.
Q: How do you reconcile your desire for a shorter, more efficient session with conservatives who want to enact laws they haven’t been able to pass in the past?
Harwell: There is some desire, especially with our freshman class. They’ve all been out there hitting the campaign trail hard, and I want them to be able to pursue what’s important to them. It’s a matter of doing things efficiently. … We have an opportunity to make a fresh start. Things don’t change overnight, and certainly I’m aware of that. But the groundwork has been laid for us to look at ways to reform state government and the legislative process and make it more transparent, more open and more efficient.
Q: You say you want to focus on jobs and the economy and education. But you have all these social conservatives in your caucus who want to focus on guns and God and gays. How will you control that?
Harwell: I’ve met with all 22 freshmen, and I’ve truly been impressed with the integrity and quality of these folks. They are smart. They have a high sophistication skill set. They know their districts. They’ve been out there working hard to be elected to the General Assembly. This wasn’t a fluke. They knew what they were doing, and they were listening to their constituents. So although I will agree they have a conservative agenda in mind, they also know what the priority for this state is. Without question, everyone that I talked to said it is important to my district that we improve the economy. It is important to my district that we pass a balanced budget with no new taxes. These freshmen are dedicated to that,
and I have no doubt they will put that first and foremost in their minds.