Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives Beth Harwell, the most recent candidate to join the field seeking to be the state's next governor, spoke with WBIR anchor John Becker about her priorities in the campaign.
Harwell, 59, has served as a state representative from Nashville since 1988.
She announced her candidacy for governor on July 15, joining a field that includes former Tennessee Economic and Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, Franklin businessman Bill Lee, state Sen. Mae Beavers, all Republicans, and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat.
The primary election is Aug. 2, 2018, and the general election in Nov. 6, 2018.
This interview was conducted on Thursday, July 21. Harwell and Becker discussed education, the state's economy, health care and how Harwell will set herself apart from the other candidates.
John Becker: Let’s talk about why you jumped into this race, a lot of high profile candidates already in it.
Beth Harwell: Well, I thought it was the appropriate time, it’s a year until election day. It gives me enough time to travel our beautiful state and get to know folks and listen to them. But an important time in our state. I think by all means people think our state government is being managed and managed well. I’ve been a part of that for the last seven years as Speaker of the House.
JB: You have been a part of that in a big way as far as a leadership team with Gov. Haslam and longtime Speaker (Ron) Ramsey. What would differentiate you from Gov. Haslam’s leadership style?
BH: Well, I’ve been a part, I think he has been a good leader for our state, I’ve been a part of that leadership team, but I think we put essentially some great reform in state government that’s really turned it around. Since I’ve been there, I have pushed very hard for elimination of three taxes, keeping Tennessee one of the lowest state taxes in the nation, and we are the lowest debt state in the nation, I feel like I played a role with that.
JB: Let’s talk about education because that has been something that the governor has talked extensively about, and I know has been negotiating with you about. The Tennessee Promise, do you see that as a positive plan for this state, and will you continue that direction if you’re elected governor?
BH: It certainly gives young people a hope that they can go on. I think it’s really important that we emphasize that not everyone needs a college degree, but everyone needs some sort of certificate and training to enter the workforce skill-ready, so I would put a great emphasis on that. I think it’s time to, during the next administration, to evaluate those programs to make sure that we really are accomplishing what we want: children are earning degrees, they actually are graduating, and they’re finding work in high-paying jobs.
JB: One of the things that may differentiate the Republican candidates for this race in the conversation may be vouchers. Explain to our viewers where you stand on that issue.
BH: Well, I think it’s a mixed bag. I think there are certainly some positives that in fact the money should follow the child, but I will also tell you that it’s not right for everyone across the state. I do think, I offered an idea that thought would be appropriate, a pilot program, let’s see if it really works in an area, it’s more of an urban area question than it is in the rural areas.
JB: Any other particular topics on education that you think you will address in your campaign?
BH: Well, I think we’ve made great strides, but we still have a long way to go. We’re doing some things right, but one of the things we haven’t got quite right is the assessment tool. And so certainly there were delays and a lot of times we didn’t get the test scores back until the next year, which really the whole point is to help children learn and you can’t help them if you don’t get the material back.
JB: Let’s move to jobs and the economy. Is Tennessee going in the right direction, and what would you do differently?
BH: Without a doubt we are. When I came in as Speaker, we took the time to completely reform our worker compensation laws, our unemployment compensation laws, and it’s paying off. We’re one of the most business-friendly states in the nation, and just the statistics released today, we know have about a three percent unemployment rate, that’s unbelievable. We haven’t had that in over a decade.
JB: Any companies that you would like to recruit that you can talk about?
BH: Oh I would be interested in recruiting as many companies as we can, and you know, because we’re an income tax-free state, we have a lot of good things going for us, but without a doubt we’ve got to keep producing workers.
JB: Let’s talk about health care because that is an issue that’s part of the national conversation right now. Where do you think that conversation should go at the state level?
BH: Well, we really have our hands tied a little bit because we’re all waiting on Washington D.C., and we all know that they’re completely dysfunctional in D.C., so we keep waiting as to what they’ll do. What I’d like to see is these domestic issues, especially health care, be returned to the states where they can be efficiently and effectively run. I think I have a proven record that we can do it better at the state level.
JB: Do you think health care is a fundamental right that should be provided for by the government at least at a basic level?
BH: I think the key there is a basic level. We don’t want to create additional entitlement programs. The goal is not to get people on government health care for the rest of their life. But every now and then, people do need a helping hand, and so I think that’s the appropriate role for government.
JB: Is there a policy in place at another state level that you think is one you could see happening in Tennessee?
BH: Well, I know a lot of states are looking, and the nice thing about state government is we are the laboratory for change. So we could try something on a limited basis and if it works, like health savings accounts, or other ideas, then we can put it into full force, but we just have to have that flexibility from the federal government.
JB: Let’s talk about some other candidates that you’re facing and what differentiates you. Some names are familiar to people in East Tennessee like Randy Boyd. What separates you from the people you’re running against?
BH: Well, I will have to work hard and raise my money, and I think that’s refreshing. I think also I have some experience in state government to hit the ground running from day one.
JB: How difficult is it as Speaker to deal with all these different viewpoints and get them to agree at least on, at least in principle, a direction.
BH: Well, you know, that’s the challenge as Speaker of the House because you have 99 members of that body all coming from across this great state, and they care deeply about issues and are passionate about their districts, but you know what I’ve been impressed with, at least at the state level, at the end of the day, we all manage to come together and do the best thing for the state. I am impressed with the quality of the people I’ve served with in the General Assembly.
JB: You have broken the glass ceiling in essence as a woman in a leadership position. What do you say to other women who are interested in politics, but a bit nervous about jumping in to something like this.
BH: Well, I would encourage them to. We need good folks, all good folks to get involved in politics. This is an exciting time in our history, as a matter of fact, during the next governor’s term in office, in the year 2020, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Tennessee giving the United States the right for women to vote.
JB: If you could look ahead and you win the race for governor, what do you hope your legacy could be in that position that it can’t be as Speaker of the House?
BH: Well, I certainly will maintain what I’ve done as Speaker when I become governor, and that is to keep our financial house in order. When that’s the case, it frees you up to do so many other things. And the number one job, I think, of the next governor is to make sure we maintain that.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add, Speaker, as we check in now and continue to throughout the race?
BH: Well, just that I love Knoxville, enjoy spending time here. Folks are so gracious and warm. I’ve enjoyed it.