Rick Womick doesn’t think Beth Harwell has “fully lived up to her responsibilities” as speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
And because she needs to be “held accountable” for her actions over the past year — both in support of Gov. Bill Haslam’s agenda and advancing her own political ambitions — Womick, a conservative Rockvale Republican who just won a third term in the statehouse earlier this month, has decided to take on the establishment-favored Harwell for the lower chamber’s highest post.
“The reason I got into it is because nobody else was willing to run against her, and I said well I’m not going to let her get by with this,” Womick told TNReport this week.
“Instead of serving the people who elected her,” Womick said of Harwell, who just won her 14th term in the Legislature, she’s been focused on raising “an enormous amount of campaign money for her own personal gain and use.”
Womick claims Harwell, who has acknowledged she’s open to a future gubernatorial run, “is sitting right now on $1.3 million that she’s raised over three-and-a-half years on the backs of her fellow legislators.”
“That’s not what we elected her to do,” he said.
Additionally, Womick charges that Harwell did “absolutely nothing” to help protect conservative GOP state reps in the August primary. Instead, she tacitly endorsed an effort by supporters of Gov. Bill Haslam to target incumbent Republicans who the administration felt were getting in the way of Haslam’s agenda.
“She and I sat down and talked about it, and she promised me that wasn’t going to happen,” Womick said. “And it did happen, and she has not spoken out against it.”
Womick, who earlier this year called Haslam a “traitor to the party,” said high-ranking members of the governor’s staff “admitted to being involved in trying to find somebody to run against me.”
Haslam has denied having any direct say in who his supporters target during election season. Harwell said much the same thing. She told TNReport via email on Friday that “an independent group of private individuals chose to get involved in some primaries, which is their prerogative.”
“I can only fully control my own contributions, and I supported our House Republicans, just as I have done for two decades in various capacities,” Harwell added.
Harwell also defended her performance as speaker since the GOP took majority control of the Legislature. She said it “has been such a privilege” to lead the House under Republican dominance, which has been a “great opportunity” for the party to make the Tennessee General Assembly “align with our conservative principles: lower taxes, limited government, and greater economic freedom and prosperity.”
“I have very much enjoyed being speaker, working with each member to help them be successful representatives of their districts and advancing ideas that help all Tennesseans,” Harwell said in the statement.
However, Womick characterized Harwell’s tenure as something of a dictatorship. He said Harwell’s standing order for House Republicans essentially boils down to “do as you’re told, or we’re going to target you.”
Womick said things would be different if he was running the show. Under his leadership House members would get more autonomy — he wouldn’t attempt to limit or sabotage bills in committee, he said.
“The bottom line of this,” Womick said, is that under his leadership the House would be more democratic — all the individual elected representatives would have a stake in “running the show,” not just the GOP caucus bigwigs.
And Womick said he’d ensure all bills get a fair hearing if the sponsor wants it. “That’s Democrats and Republicans,” Womick said. “As a publicly elected servant, they have the right for their voices to be heard, not stifled by committee chairmen.” The situation lately, he said, has been that when bills are opposed by the governor or House leadership, they either never get a hearing or are held up until the end of session “when there’s no chance for them to even pass.”
Womick said he’d provide procedural direction to the body’s members “at their request,” but his guidance wouldn’t be “overhanded.”
He also wants to see a more independent legislative branch. Haslam has too much control over what does and doesn’t get through the General Assembly — such as with the fiscal note process, which has gotten “out of control,” said Womick. The last few years, he said that if Haslam “wants the de facto veto of a bill,” the administration “just slaps a fiscal note on it.”
Speaker Harwell has done nothing to stand up to the governor and prevent executive-branch interference in the lawmaking process, Womick said.
Additionally, state law requires a fiscal note be attached to a bill within 13 days of filing, something the Haslam administration routinely ignores, he said. “There are going to be honest, straightforward fiscal notes, and the governor’s going to have very little say-so when it comes to the time-frame,” said Womick. “We’re going to stick with what the law says.”
Harwell dismissed Womick’s allegations regarding the stifling of legislation. “I have always allowed a fair hearing on every single bill, and whether or not bills advance is the purview of the committee to which it is assigned. Those hearings are all done in public view,” Harwell said.