New Era Begins at State Capitol

The 2011 session of the Tennessee Legislature commenced on Tuesday in much the same way the 2010 election campaign ended: With Republicans riding high and promising to take the state in bold new directions.

As a first order of business, the House of Representatives did something it has never done in history — elected a female speaker.

And while other initiatives and proposals the GOP-commanded chamber is expected to put forward in the coming months will no doubt run into opposition from Democrats, their nominee for the House’s top lawmaker did not. All 33 members of the minority party joined with the 64 Republicans and the lone independent in voting for Nashville Rep. Beth Harwell to preside over the body.

The 53-year-old Harwell has been in the Legislature for 22 years. She was virtually assured of winning the post when she beat out Franklin Rep. Glen Casada for the GOP’s House speaker nomination back in November.

Casada, who was largely seen as the more conservative of the two, seconded the majority-party motion nominating Harwell to be speaker on Tuesday. Democrats declined to nominate a candidate of their own.

After the vote in the House, Harwell quickly indicated — as she’s done for some time now — that she plans to press a pretty conservative agenda herself over the next two years.

“Citizens sent a very clear message this last election day: They are frustrated with the out-of-control spending they see in Washington, D.C., and they do not want to see it here,” said the new gavel-weilder. “They expect us to exercise fiscal restraint and make the necessary cuts to balance our budget without raising taxes, and it is just what we will do.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s message in the Senate was similar.

Ramsey, R-Blountville, who cruised on a party-line 20-13 vote to a second term as the upper chamber’s speaker, declared that the GOP’s new dominance in the Legislature is a direct result of the voters’ displeasure with the spendthrift ways of Washington politicians.

“We come together (today) just two months after the Tennessee voters gave a mandate to those who pledged a new focus — to reduce the size of government, and push back against an overreaching federal government; to cut back taxes and let the private sector create good, high-paying jobs,” Ramsey said in his speech after winning reelection as speaker.

Both Ramsey and Harwell will have much support for their agendas because Republicans hold such clear majorities, and both hit upon familiar GOP rhetorical themes and talking points.

Harwell reiterated her previously mentioned litmus test for deciding whether a piece of legislation is necessary: Does it increase the size of government? Does it make it harder to start and run a business in Tennessee? Regarding education, does it “keep us moving forward…to meet the needs of the next generation”?

Ramsey alluded to providing parents a “choice in how their children are educated.” He added that Tennessee should “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our sister-states to make sure the federal government protects our jobs and our borders.”

Andrea Zelinski shot video for this story.