Rep. Beth Harwell sees more than just a Republican majority in the House of Representatives — she sees it as a license for the GOP to do what it wants.
And what Harwell wants is be in the driver’s seat.
The Nashville Republican is running for Speaker of the House, a highly coveted leadership post Harwell says she’s earned after a four-year stint running the Tennessee Republican Party and heading up high-profile legislative committees.
But before she can take the wheel, she’ll have to beat out another well-connected contender in House Majority Leader Glen Casada as well as overcome concerns about her commitment to the conservative agenda and her friendliness to Democrats.
“Certainly in times past, we’ve had this mentality of a Democrat-Republican coalition, understandably so,” she told TNReport Wednesday. “That day is over.”
Since Republicans scooped up 14 extra seats in the House of Representatives for a 64-34-1 majority, Harwell has has been positioning herself as a House GOP lawmaker who is strong, experienced and patient enough to handle a massive freshman class of Republicans.
But some say her past legislative votes and actions cast doubt on whether she’ll consistently adhere to conservative interpretations of constitutional principles in the future.
The Tennessee Firearms Association shot off an e-mail to members Wednesday questioning Harwell’s stance on the 2nd Amendment, and beyond that the depth of her understanding of, and commitment to defending, other essential tenets of the Bill of Rights.
Case in point, said TFA Executive Director John Harris, was that Harwell had voted against two major bills expanding gun rights in the last two years.
She was one of only two Republicans in the House who voted not to overturn Gov. Phil Bredesen’s veto of a bill that would allow guns in places of business that serve alcohol. The override ultimately passed 61-30. The other Republican, Rep. Joe McCord, did not seek reelection this year.
“Many see an elected official’s voting history on these Second Amendment issues as a litmus test of the depth of that individual’s core, constitutional foundations,” Harris wrote in the TFA e-mail. “A demonstrated unwillingness to stand by core constitutional principles cannot be lightly ignored as a predictor of what might occur when other constitutional rights are in the balance.”
Harwell, a 53-year-old 12-term legislator, insists her record on gun rights is actually quite strong. She was given a ‘B’ by the NRA.
“In all the years I have been there, I have voted 100 percent with them, except for that one last bill, which was guns in bars,” Harwell said, adding that “alcohol and guns do not mix.”
At any rate, any legislation dealing with guns that is of importance to members of the GOP caucus would make its way to the House floor under her leadership, Harwell said.
As if she weren’t facing enough obstacles, her Speaker Kent Williams gave her an extra one when he endorsed her shortly after the election.
Williams said his backing was an attempt to help in her reach for the speaker’s gavel. However, given that the party is still ticked at him for using Democratic votes in 2008 to steal the speakership away from then-Rep. Jason Mumpower, his vocal support may do more harm than good, said Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol.
“I think, clearly, that that endorsement was not helpful in any stretch of the imagination. I think he did it thinking it would genuinely help, so I don’t think he realizes some of the feelings that exist for him on the Republican caucus,” said Lundberg, who declined to comment on who he would vote for, although he is angling for a seat as House Republican Leader.
Even though Republicans now make up two-thirds of the House, members of the Memphis Tea Party believe it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Harwell could rally the same troops that won Williams his speakership.
In a recent e-mail, the group called Harwell “damaged goods” and questioned her GOP loyalties to a conservative agenda.
But Harwell says none of conservatives’ worries are warranted. Not only is she ignoring Democrats as she counts up votes in her bid for speaker, but Harwell promises to load up legislative committees in ways reflective of Republicans’ robust numerical strength in the House.
“We have the majority, the vast majority. We are ready to govern in that mindset. As far as I’m concerned, there will be no Democrat-Republican coalition,” she said. “This will be a Republican decision who the next speaker is.”