Incoming House speaker downplays gender politics

Sunday, November 28, 2010 at 10:00pm
Beth Harwell (Jude Ferrara/SouthComm)

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.”

New priorities

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.

8 Comments on this post:

By: cookeville on 11/28/10 at 9:53

Hmmm, is a female dictator as bad as a male dictator? After all, this is what it ends up as. Oh well, it won't matter anyhow, because after the good legislature gets through with us, we will have nothing and will sink even farther to the bottom of the barrel in providing for the common welfare while providing more riches for the rich. Ask her after her tenure how much her income has increased.

By: tpaine on 11/29/10 at 5:22

Hopefully, under Republican management, we'll finally be able to get off the bottom educationally. The Charter School concept was a good start, but we should be expecting more from our public schools in Nashville and Memphis.
I'm truly excited about this new crop of legislators. They have a lot of good ideas that can be implemented without breaking the state bank.

By: Just Sayin on 11/29/10 at 7:18

Charter schools are working good in other states, it's a great place to start. Minnesota has an exceptional Charter School system, one that we should look at also. With a new Republican govenor and a new house speaker and a 90 millon dollar donation, let's hope they don't squander the chance at a new start for all Tennesse school children.

By: govskeptic on 11/29/10 at 7:56

It's this poster's hope that the legislature doesn't forget ever further
the citizens of this state in a few consumer issues. All we hear any-
more is small businss, but there's also several groups/lobbyist
representing them that do nothing but deprieve us of consumer
protection that most other states have! Specially mentioning just
a few are Real Estate, Insurance of most all types, Interest payments,
one sided contracts of many kinds, and oh so many crooked contractors of many flavors! Issues never brought up in campaigns, news
reporting, or candidate interviews or questions.

By: drusie on 11/29/10 at 9:26

That interview with Frank Niceley is a hoot! Thanks for posting it for us.

By: sickofstupidity on 11/29/10 at 10:17

The goverment jobs you need to cut Ms. Harwell are the high paying jobs you and the other legislative boobs give to your friends, supporters abd lobbists. No other goverment employees in Tn. are making any money while you idiots debate road kill, guns, and useless legislation. First order of business should be to gibe an IQ atest to both ther house and senate members. Anyone with les than a 75 should be booted....opps sorry, you would not have a quorom in either body!

By: not_guilty on 11/29/10 at 8:04

"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."

That is inaccurate. Jane Eskind was the Democratic nominee for U. S. Senate in 1978, and was later elected to the Public Service Commission (which was an elected office until the mid-1990s). If I remember correctly, Sara Kyle, a Democrat, was elected in 1994 to the PSC and was subsequently appointed to its successor, the Tennessee Regulatory Authority.

By: Loretta Bridge on 11/30/10 at 8:15

One her first press conference she said she was not worried about working with the other party because her party had the majority of the votes. Was I being stupid to think that they are suppose to be working to do what is best for the citizens and not for their party. I wish I had kept my vote. Now I am so sorry I voted for her. I AM SICK OF PROFESSIONAL POLITICIANS THAT ARE ONLY FOR THEIR PARTY AND NOT FOR US.