Womick Wants to Debate Harwell for House GOP Speakership Nomination

Rick Womick last week challenged Speaker Beth Harwell to a debate on who’s best suited to lead the GOP-dominated House of Representatives, but he hasn’t heard back whether she’s game.

So Womick, a Republican from Rockvale, has issued a missive to the 73-member supermajority caucus to try and turn up the heat on the 14-term Nashville lawmaker, who four years ago became the first woman ever elected to lead the Tennessee General Assembly’s lower chamber.

Womick said the letter will be released to the media on Monday, and that it details several criticisms he thinks Speaker Harwell needs to openly address with respect to her legislative leadership.

“The content of the letter is going to focus on three main areas, three main points,” Womick told TNReport. “And it deals with my style of leadership versus the speaker’s style of leadership, and my perspective when it comes to her accountability to the caucus.”

The secret-ballot House GOP caucus vote to nominate a speaker for the next two years is planned for Dec. 10. At that meeting, each of the candidates for the chamber’s top position will have a few minutes to address the members before the vote, which Womick said is an insufficient format for delving into issues he says need addressing.

The retired Air Force pilot from Rutherford County has criticized Harwell for capitulating to Haslam’s policy whims, allowing the governor to deep-six legislation he doesn’t favor or want seriously discussed. “And it starts with the speaker,” Womick recently told the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro. “She allows things like flagging bills and fraudulent fiscal notes, these kinds of things that are put on legislation with the sole intent to kill the bill because the governor may not agree with them.”

Womick, now in his third House term, announced his challenge to Harwell shortly after they both won reelection in their respective Middle Tennessee districts earlier this month. He also accuses the speaker of doing nothing last summer to protect conservative House GOP caucus members from being targeted in the primary by a PAC associated with the governor’s supporters.

Nevertheless, Womick recently disavowed a disparaging email attacking Harwell that was anonymously sent by his apparent backers to House GOP lawmakers. The email implied that House Clerk Joe McCord, a former Republcan state representative, was controlling policy from behind the scenes and has been pulling the strings of Harwell, Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson of Clarksville, House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent of Franklin, and former House GOP Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart.

“My challenge to Speaker Harwell is not of a personal nature and I will not allow it to degrade into a campaign centered around character assassination,” Womick said in an email to legislators.

Womick said he still hopes to debate Harwell prior to the caucus nomination vote so all the Republican House members “have the opportunity to make a fully informed decision.” However, while he’s gotten no direct response from Harwell as to his debate challenge, Womick told TNReport he’s heard she “wants to stick to the three minute speech.” He said limiting the discussion in that manner turns the nominating process into “nothing more than a popularity contest for class president.”

“If that’s what she wants to do, I understand that, and that’s her prerogative,” Womick said.

Harwell could not be reached for comment Friday. She has both denied any role in helping unseat House Republicans or that she’s taken any inappropriate action to derail bills while she’s been in charge of the chamber. “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 in an emailed statement to TNReport earlier this month.

Womick said he hopes the letter he’s sending out will boost his base of supporters from what he says now is about 25 House Republicans to to a level that’s “more than enough to secure” his nomination. He also said he’s encouraging his supporters not to be vocal about where they stand “unless they really, really want to.”

“I’m asking them for their vote and their support privately, but not to do it publicly, because if they do, they will be targeted and there will be retribution,” Womick said.

Antagonizing Harwell is “not worth it” for lawmakers who, unlike himself, haven’t already been labeled troublemakers in the Republican caucus, he said. But Womick’s not afraid of further drawing Harwell’s ire, and said he fully expects to be targeted for reprisal if she wins the gavel again. He anticipates payback in the form of ineffectual committee appointments, hostility from caucus leadership to any bills he might sponsor and Republican primary opposition in 2016.

But Womick said that for him the risks are worth doing what he feels needs to be done. “I’m all about the truth, I’m all about integrity of the office and I’m all about representing the people that elected us within our districts, and if I don’t do that, then I might as well resign and go home,” he said.

“I’m not worried about it, because my district knows that I represent them, and it’s a very strong conservative district, and they’re going to have to spend a whole lot of money to tarnish my reputation,” Womick said.