Nashville Republican Beth Harwell defeated the tea party-backed candidate, Glen Casada, Thursday to become her party’s choice as the next speaker of the state House of Representatives.
Once formally elected in January when legislators meet in the 107th General Assembly, Harwell will become the first woman ever to serve as speaker.
The House Republican Caucus, which won a commanding 64-34 margin over Democrats in November’s elections, nominated Harwell by secret ballot in a special meeting in downtown Nashville.
Her victory was something of a surprise to many observers since it came in the face of opposition from tea party leaders and Second Amendment advocates, who have dominated the legislature since the GOP took control of both the House and Senate two years ago for the first time since Civil War Reconstruction. Her critics objected chiefly to her vote against the guns-in-bars law that was enacted in the last legislature.
Only moments after the vote, Memphis Tea Party leader Mark Skoda expressed outrage in an email to supporters.
“Well, just got the word,” he said. “The secret ballot taken in Nashville this hour elected the moderate Beth Harwell to the leadership position in the House. We now have a moderate speaker who is anti-gun rights from a majority democrat district leading our newly elected majority.”
In her speech before the caucus voted, Harwell specifically addressed her guns-in-bars opposition, saying she was voting the way her Green Hills’ constituents wanted. As speaker of the House, she bluntly promised never to criticize another Republican who did the same.
“I have a strong conservative voting record,” she said. “I voted against the income tax. I am pro-business and pro-life, and I have a strong record on gun rights as well. You know there is one record in which I voted against the guns-in-bars bill. But I reflected the will of the people who sent me.
“As your speaker, I will tell you that I will push very hard for our Republican agenda, but there might be a time when you might need a pass to reflect the wishes of your district. I want you to know as your leader, I will always follow Ronald Reagan’s rule and never speak ill of a fellow Republican. We must put aside any divisive labels. We are 64 members. That is only strong if we are united.”
Harwell was co-chair of Gov.-elect Bill Haslam’s campaign, and their association was believed to be a key factor in her nomination.
Asked by reporters afterward to name her priorities as speaker, Harwell focused on the economy and didn’t mention abortion, guns or any of the social conservative issues that have preoccupied Republicans in the past.
“Certainly, this caucus is committed to low taxes, small government and carrying the governor’s agenda through. We have an economy that needs repair. We want to focus on the job creation and building an environment that’s conducive to job creation in the state of Tennessee.”
Asked about the tea party criticism, Harwell said: “We welcome their input. We’d love them to join the Republican Party. Our party is wide. We accept the fact that there will be differences of opinion. But certainly our party is united and ready to move forward.”
She dismissed tea party claims that she’s a Republican in name only.
“I’m very proud of my conservative credentials,” she said, “and it was simply ridiculous. We’re beyond all those labels. We’re moving forward as a party and we’re united.”