Beth Harwell has won the Republican caucus nomination for speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
Harwell, who in 2011 became the first woman to win the top post in the General Assembly’s lower chamber, easily fended off a challenge Wednesday from Rick Womick, R-Rockvale.
A former Belmont University political science professor who is entering her 14th two-year term as a state lawmaker, Harwell won the support of 57 GOP legislators in the secret-ballot vote held a few blocks from the Capitol at the Nashville City Club. Womick gathered just 15 votes.
Because the GOP dominates the chamber, Harwell is virtually assured of victory when the full House convenes in January to officially choose who will preside over the body. There are 73 Republicans in the House, 26 Democrats.
The Nashville lawmaker said after the votes were tallied that party unity is one of her priorities going forward. “I feel very good about where this caucus is,” she said.
Harwell had been criticized by Womick for working too closely with the Gov. Bill Haslam, also a Republican, on the kinds of legislation that the body gives serious consideration to — and that her leadership style has at times divided the caucus.
Womick argued that the governor’s influence over the legislative process the past four years has on occasion crossed the line into “a violation of the separation of powers.” He said Gov. Haslam has illegitimately attained for himself “a de facto veto against our legislation.”
But Harwell defended her handling of the legislative process, and her chummy relationship with Haslam.
“I want a good working relationship with our governor. He has a 70 percent approval rating — why would we not work with him?” said Harwell.
Harwell added that she’s asked the National Conference of State Legislatures to analyze the Tennessee Legislature’s system of calculating the costs of proposed bills, to determine how the system compares to processes used in other states, and if changes need to be made.
“If there is room for improvement I am always open to that,” said Harwell. She added, though, that in the interest of keeping Tennessee “a fiscally sound state,” it’s important for executive branch departments “to let us know what a bill is actually going to cost.”
“We have to rely on the experts to tell us what legislation is going to cost, because we don’t have the luxury of just passing bills like Congress does and guessing what they might cost,” she said. “We actually have to know before we pass legislation.”