Beth Harwell has been called a lot of things over the last few years, “trailblazer” chief among them as Tennessee’s first female House speaker.
Now she’s a “survivor” after eking out a Republican Caucus victory as speaker nominee to continue leading the lower chamber in the 110th General Assembly.
Some detractors have used not-so-nice terms to describe her in the last year, especially as she led an effort, albeit a protracted one, to oust resident House lecher Jeremy Durham from the Legislature. One blog, Rocky Top Politics, calls her everything but sliced bread.
Following a difficult 2016 session, Harwell had to work harder than normal to beat Democrat Chris Moth in the Nov. 8 election, getting some help from Gov. Bill Haslam with glossy TV ads to claim the win.
With one of the most popular governors in recent history backing her, Harwell should have cruised to a win as the Republican. And her 26 years in the House should count for something.
But with tea party types and outliers in the mold of former Rep. Rick Womick throwing stones, Harwell didn’t exactly roll over Rep. Jimmy Matlock, who challenged her for the speaker nominee position in the recent Republican Caucus election.
With 71 of 74 caucus members present – they hold a supermajority in the 99-member House – Republicans voted 40-30 recently to make Harwell their nominee as House speaker. The vote came after they rejected efforts to count absentee votes of Rep. Art Swann, who missed because of his mother’s funeral, and two others.
In addressing members before the vote, Harwell reminded them she’s a strong Republican. Some apparently despise her because, being from Nashville, she has to play nice with House Democrats and the Davidson County delegation, whom they’d like to see sent back to the Stone Age.
She held up mailers sent out by Moth in the general election showing her endorsing President-elect Donald Trump, the National Rifle Association and the Amendment One abortion measure and pointed out: Well, of course she supports those Republican causes.
Harwell hit the high points of recent Republican achievements, including lowering the sales tax on food, eliminating the death tax and chipping away at the Hall income tax, in addition to getting a strong bond rating and improvements on student test scores.
She also predicted more change as a result of a Trump presidency, especially in the form of “federal overreach,” a favorite conservative line to blame the feds for everything, including the price of tea in China.
Matlock, on the other hand, offered a shot at a “different direction” in the House, one with more “openness” and greater “transparency.”
He contends Republican legislators are tired of going home to their districts for the weekend and then finding out “what happened in Nashville.” They also want more involvement in how caucus dollars are used, he added.
“You’ve also said to me, ‘Jimmy, stop, push back. We don’t want to be led by the media,’” he told members.
This apparently is what happens when reporters ask Harwell tough questions about matters such as the Durham debacle, and she has to come up with quick answers and doesn’t have time to survey the Republican Caucus for their opinions. But considering some of them would just as soon see the “liberal media” dry up and blow away, she’ll have a hard time pleasing them, no matter what.
As far as caucus reaction to Durham’s expulsion, which was handled in a special session called to correct a DUI bill and maintain $60 million in federal funds, Harwell says, “I think they’re confident that we did the right thing, that it was time for him to leave, and I think I handled it as well as I could, given my legal and constitutional constraints.”
And even with the Republican Caucus full of different factions, a symptom of size, and 30 members supporting Matlock, Harwell says the group began uniting immediately after the vote.
“You just saw it,” she says. “Jimmy Matlock and I were sitting together and having a good conversation. When you get to be the supermajority, when you’re 74 members strong, of course we’re going to have competition.
“We’re having competition for every one of these seats and they’ve been close on all of them. You would expect that, and I actually think it’s healthy.”
Asked about complaints regarding communication and representation by House leadership, Harwell says, “I don’t lead the caucus. I’m the speaker of the House, and I think all members of the House feel I am approachable.
“My door is always open, both for Democrat and Republican members of the House of Representatives.” (There she goes talking about those darn Democrats again.)
Matlock, who is about as low-key as a state representative and committee chairman can be without falling off the radar, is conciliatory but glad he got to make his point.
“We’re a caucus of 74 independent, somewhat-ego-driven individuals and we all think we’ve got the best idea, so we’re not going to agree on everything,” he says.
“But hopefully we’ve got the election completed and people will move forward, and I think we’re going to have a good year.”
Calling Harwell a “wise and capable leader,” Matlock hopes she takes some of his ideas, “that were maybe weaknesses,” and turns them into strengths.
And while he doesn’t want to play Monday morning quarterback on how she dealt with the media during the Durham ordeal, Matlock says he would have done some things differently, though he acknowledged earlier this year he knew quite some time ago about Durham discretions. (An attorney general investigation found Durham sexually harassed 22 women in the Legislative Plaza, among other things.)
Since he wasn’t in the room to hear discussions about the Durham investigation, Matlock, who cited work responsibilities in not attending the special session, says he can’t pass judgment.
“But I will say I firmly believe that things were learned about how the process could be better, and I think you’re going to see that whole system more transparent than ever before,” he says.
The monkey wrench
A Republican Caucus election just wouldn’t be any fun without some finger-pointing.
Two years ago, when Womick got trounced 57-15 by Harwell he called Haslam a traitor and accused the Strong & Free Tennessee PAC of circulating a flyer saying he put political ambition before Rutherford County families. He didn’t seek re-election this year, though he probably would have won with ease.
This year’s conflict came in the form of a Rocky Top Politics blog complete with photos and video showing Rep. Glen Casada hanging out at Bar Louie in The Gulch last March with some young folks, including a blond woman with whom he’s having an animated conversation, at one point touching her on the leg. (He says her boyfriend was one of several people there with them but was edited out of the scene.)
Not one to let things lie, Casada, the former caucus chairman, came out swinging in his speech to the caucus as he sought the House Majority leader position against Rep. Mike Carter of Ooltewah in Hamilton County.
Besides pointing out the fact he helped Republicans surge from a minority to supermajority, the 14-year House member from the Franklin area was clearly peeved about the anonymous blog he felt meant to “sabotage” his leadership position, the caucus election and his marriage.
Casada called it a “carefully edited” piece filled with “outright lies.” He said he has not been unfaithful to his wife.
“It is the dagger in the heart of freedom,” he told caucus members before the vote.
Well, the U.S. Constitution isn’t likely to crumble under the weight of these accusations, as shaky as they may be. But in a time when nearly every person carries a camera in their cell phone, these kinds of things will surface.
Casada beat Carter 42-29 anyway and buoyed by the results said he will try to “expose” those he claims libeled him, Harwell and staff members. Harwell might join him, depending on how he approaches it, possibly with a lawsuit to require those involved to be named.
Asked if he thought someone backing Carter was behind it, he says, “I mean obviously it was somebody who wanted to influence the election. … I don’t think it was Mike Carter. Was it somebody backing him? Well, it does look that way. That’s all I know.”
And so the soap opera continues.
Transition of power
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the driving force of the Republican Party’s evolution from also-ran to supermajority in the House and Senate, is set to be replaced as Senate speaker by the Legislature’s longest-standing member, Sen. Randy McNally.
The Senate Republican Caucus, which holds a 28-5 advantage over Democrats, selected McNally by acclimation, replacing the charismatic (not quite apostolic) Ramsey with the droll Oak Ridge pharmacist, who though low key has played a role in turning up crooks in two different undercover operations on Capitol Hill, one time wearing a wire to record legislators looking to get paid for votes.
Agreeing McNally has a different style, Ramsey says he’s the salesman the Republican Party needed to vault to the supermajority while re-elected Majority Leader Mark Norris and McNally are more like engineers.
If Senate Republicans were going from 15 to 28, instead of standing at 28 members and fresh off wins in two tough races, different leadership would be needed, Ramsey says. (The Senate GOP Caucus spent $1.1 million on elections.)
“But once you’re there, we’ll stay there for a while, so Randy’s the perfect person to come in there,” he adds, calling McNally “one of the most knowledgeable, level-headed people” he’s ever met.
McNally, at age 72 and a legislator since 1977, says not much will change under his leadership. He even expects to run for office again in two years, though he says he’ll wait to see whether he would go for the Senate speaker’s post.
Changes are more likely forthcoming from President-elect Trump’s administration, McNally says.
Asked where he stands on the possibility of a gas-tax increase to fund the state’s need for more than $6 billion in road projects, McNally says that is likely affected by Trump’s statements in support of more infrastructure projects nationwide.
At the same time, Americans are seeing health insurance premiums triple whether they have employer insurance or coverage through the Affordable Care Act, McNally points out. He hopes for Medicaid block grants and more leeway from the federal government for states to develop their own programs to control costs.
McNally, who says he voted for Trump in the Nov. 8 election, notes state lawmakers are getting mixed messages from the president-elect, who initially said he wanted to repeal and replace Obamacare but now says it has some good provisions such as required coverage for pre-existing conditions and allowing children to stay on parents’ coverage until age 26.
The Senate speaker-in-waiting acknowledges those are hard to argue.
But he thinks Hillary Clinton “was simply President Obama 2.0,” which voters didn’t necessarily like, especially the majority of Tennesseans. He also thinks the economy has recovered much too slowly after recession, with a number of jobs, especially in the Northeast, not returning.
Asked about protests nationwide about Trump’s election, McNally says people should be willing to give him a chance, much as Republicans gave Bill Clinton the benefit of the doubt in 1992, instead of “doing things that are damaging the public and putting the public safety at risk.”
But does he understand their concerns?
“Well, it was a very divisive campaign,” he concedes, “and I can verbalize what a lot of their concerns were, but I don’t agree with many of them.”
When it’s pointed out people fear for their safety or are concerned about retaliation, McNally adds, “I think that’s all campaign rhetoric that people have caught on to and continue to believe. But we have a representative democracy and they have representatives in Washington who will hopefully work with the Trump administration and smooth things over.”
With Republicans controlling the White House, Senate and House, anyone hoping for such reconciliation shouldn’t hold their breath. No doubt, college kids are an impatient lot. But just when will those dratted hooligans learn, especially those future Republicans from Vanderbilt?
On one hand, Trump says he won’t completely wall off Mexico. But then he appoints Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, an immigration stickler who reportedly made racist remarks, saying he thought the KKK was “OK” until he found out they used marijuana. The Associated Press also reports he referred to a black assistant U.S. attorney as a “boy and called the NAACP “un-American” and “communist-inspired.”
Sessions, of course, calls those “false charges” and points to his vote to confirm Eric Holder for attorney general under President Obama as a sign he’s a good guy. He also co-sponsored the Fair Sentencing Act to stop racial disparities in who goes to jail.
Maybe he has grown since the 1980s.
A wacky scenario
Though Ramsey is technically no longer a senator, since he didn’t seek re-election, he remains lieutenant governor until Jan. 10 when McNally presumably will be sworn in to the post.
If something happens to Haslam, Ramsey’s still in line to be governor, a position he sought six years ago. He says he’s going home to Upper East Tennessee to play with grandchildren, tend to his farming and run his real estate and auctioneer business.
But what would happen if Sen. Bob Corker took the post as U.S. Secretary of State under Trump? His position could come open, and Haslam could appoint himself to fill the Senate seat. Such a move would open the governor’s seat.
(Incidentally, Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro says he is mulling a run for Rutherford County mayor in 2018, based on what might happen in the next month or two in that regard.)
Would that enable McNally to become governor?
“No, it could make Ron Ramsey governor,” McNally says, breaking into laughter. Asked if that’s his scenario, he says, “It would be my scenario. I don’t know if it’s Ron’s or not.”
McNally doesn’t think Haslam would appoint himself to the job. But what the heck, in two years, Haslam’s going to need work. He can’t just sit at a Pilot Flying J desk and count money. After years as Knoxville mayor and governor, he can’t just stop holding press conferences. They’re in his blood.
And speaking of blood, as long as Republicans hold sway, especially in the House, somebody’s going to get cut, even if it’s just by words, photos, videos or lawsuits.
Sam Stockard can be reached at email@example.com.