Beth Harwell won the GOP caucus’ nomination for speaker of the House of Representatives on Thursday, thereby positioning herself to become the first woman in Tennessee history to achieve a legislative leadership post of that stature.
Given the Republicans’ stark supremacy in the chamber following their decisive electoral gains earlier this month, Rep. Harwell will almost assuredly win the right to wield the speaker’s gavel in January when the full House convenes and formally selects a lawmaker to preside over the body.
The Nashville Republican fought off attacks from gun-rights advocates and stalwart conservative activists to win the nod. But both before and after the secret-ballot vote, Harwell took pains to reassure her party colleagues that one rule of thumb would guide her actions as the chamber’s most powerful legislator: The GOP is calling the shots.
“Sixteen days ago, Tennesseans sent a loud and clear message that they had enough of Democrat rule in Nashville,” Harwell told members of her caucus in a short speech prior to the vote. “I come from a background of loyalty to this party.”
Harwell said the Republican Party’s platform proclamation that “government should be limited, and we should limit government regulations” ought to guide GOP lawmakers in all their legislative endeavors going forward.
“We should ask ourselves the question when we vote on a bill, Does it increase the size of government, or not,” she said. “And, Does it make it easier for a small business to grow and operate in this state, or not?”
Harwell, formerly an associate professor of political science at Belmont University, added that she’s also quite fond of the party’s stated belief that “the most effective government is closest to the people.”
“We are the party of states’ rights,” Harwell declared.
In the 2010 general election, Republicans earned “a mandate to put these principles into state government at every level, and we should never lose that focus,” she said. “If we do, the only other thing that the Democrats could do to have any hope is to have divisive action from within.”
After the ballots were cast Harwell said she’s “very proud of (her) conservative credentials.” She called it “simply ridiculous” that some doubted her commitment to the party’s core philosophical stances.
Asked by a reporter what Tennesseans could expect from her as House speaker, Harwell said, “I will be fair…and I will always put our Republican principles in the forefront.”
“Certainly, this caucus is committed to low taxes, small government and carrying the governor’s agenda through,” she added. “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.”
In a press conference after the vote, House GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, who Harwell bested to win the nomination, said he won’t seek the majority-party leadership slot next year.
“I think my place right now is to be a good caucus member and to support our new speaker,” said Casada.
Prominent state GOP figures declared congratulations and support for Harwell following the vote.
“Time and again, Beth has proven her commitment to making Tennessee a better place for families and businesses to thrive,” said party chairman Chris Devaney. “In addition, she played an integral role in Republicans’ historic success this election cycle and has worked tirelessly over the years to build and strengthen our party throughout the state.”
Said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, “It is a great honor and I know she will do the job well. Tennesseans voted for limited, efficient government on November 2nd and I look forward to working with her and Governor Haslam to reduce spending, lower taxes and encourage job creation across Tennessee.”
Harwell wouldn’t say when she knew she had all the votes to lock her in as the caucus’ choice. She said she “felt pretty good there towards the end of the campaign,” but still felt “a little nervous” before the independent vote auditors announced the winner.
Mark Todd Engler contributed to this report.