NASHVILLE - (USA TODAY) Touting nearly three decades' worth of legislative experience, including six years in leadership, House Speaker and Nashville Republican Beth Harwell is officially launching a campaign to become Tennessee’s next governor.
“I think I have a proven, practical results record. I have been in state government and proved that I know a great deal about our state. I have the knowledge and experience to hit the ground running on day one,” Harwell said in an interview with the USA TODAY Network - Tennessee.
“As governor, I will lead on jobs, cutting taxes, guaranteeing every child has a great school and ensuring our Tennessee values are protected.”
In a wide-ranging interview at her Nashville home, Harwell cited her work on a variety of issues from taxes to education as evidence that she is best suited to serve as governor.
She enters a field of Republican candidates that also features former Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, Williamson County businessman Bill Lee and state Sen. Mae Beavers.
Also considering entering the Republican race is U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn.
Unlike Boyd and Lee, who for the most part are political novices, Harwell will be relying heavily on her legislative experience. The main tenants of her campaign center on keeping the state’s financial house in order, continuing a commitment to improve education, fostering an environment for a strong workforce and supporting public safety.
“As I travel our state I hear consistently that people are pleased with their state government. When they compare it to other states, or even worse the federal government, they’re saying, 'Y’all are doing a good job,'” she said. “I want to continue that.”
She’s quick to tout the elimination of the death tax and gift tax, the phase out of the Hall Income Tax and several education reforms while she’s been in office as evidence of her conservative credentials.
Harwell said she has heard from everyday Tennesseans on what they want improved in the state, including the need for more workers with vocational and technical training.
Calling it a myth that everyone needs a college degree, Harwell said, “Most people can make a very good living if they develop work skills to meet the next generation’s desire in the workforce.”
The ongoing opioid crisis ravaging the state will need to be addressed by the next governor, she said, adding she’d like to see public money diverted from paying for incarceration to fund recovery courts and facilities.
“It makes sense for us to change our mindset. If these people need help, we can’t incarcerate our way out of this problem,” she said.
In January, she created a special legislative panel specifically focused on the state’s ongoing opioid epidemic. The opioid task force was the second group Harwell created in two years; in 2016 she formed a task force to explore a phased-in approach to expanding Medicaid coverage through TennCare.
Breadth of experience
First elected to the House in 1988, Harwell and Rep. Steve McDaniel are the chamber’s longest serving current members. When she was elected House speaker in 2011, Harwell became the first woman to serve in the top leadership position in state history.
Although she will be the second female candidate to enter the governor’s race, Harwell, 59, said she is not planning on using gender to score political points.
“I don’t think anyone should vote for me because I am a woman, but I would tell you the historical significance is great,” she said, noting that in 2020 Tennessee will celebrate the 100th year since the legislature gave the deciding ratification to the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. “I think it’d be nice to have a female governor at that point.”
Since becoming an elected official, Harwell has staved off occasional challenges in general and leadership elections. Last year, Harwell defeated Democrat Chris Moth in the general election by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin. After the election, she bested fellow Republican Rep. Jimmy Matlock in his effort to become House speaker.
Although the 2018 governor’s race would be her toughest political battle yet, Harwell said while sitting in her ranch-style home in tony Belle Meade that she is not daunted by the competition nor the prospect of having to raise money.
“I think I’ll be able to raise sufficient funds to be credible in this race and to get my message out,” she said, adding that she will relying heavily on her own personal money.
Harwell, who has a doctorate from Vanderbilt University, was a college professor before entering politics, and is married to Sam Harwell, the founder of Big Time Toys.
To help with her campaign, Harwell has hired David Ingram, the son of Nashville philanthropist Martha Ingram, to serve as campaign treasurer; Rachel Barrett, whose past clients include former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and Reid Witcher to lead fundraising; and Holt Whitt, who works for the House Republican caucus, to lead campaign operations.
Layne Provine of Margin of Victory Partners, Jonathan Dickerson and Andrew Lajeunessee of Stoneridge Group have also been hired.
Harwell's experience in government will likely serve as a boon and a hindrance for her campaign, said Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer.
“She brings a good deal of experience to the table. She has also led the legislature on important issues. But that will prove to be a double-edged sword,” he said. “Some of the controversies that have surrounded the legislature will be used against her by her opponents."
Although Harwell’s record will provide fodder for political attacks, especially for Boyd and Lee who have no elected experience, attacks from members of her own party would hardly be new. During her time as House speaker, Harwell has had to balance the varying factions and interests within her own party.
Last year, some Republicans criticized her for how she handled the investigation and expulsion of former Franklin Rep. Jeremy Durham. This year, Harwell and the chamber’s leadership faced criticism from members of their own party, along with Democrats, about budget process concerns in the waning days of the legislative session. The members’ frustrations boiled over, leading to a halt in approving the budget.
Harwell said while there have at times been disagreements with members of her own party, she’s confident she’s always been fair and accessible. Given her longevity and status in government, Harwell also benefits in name recognition. A recent Vanderbilt University poll found that 38 percent of voters recognized her name, behind just Black and Dean among the field of announced and potential gubernatorial candidates.
Harwell said she has no plans of stepping down as speaker during her run for governor. The move is not without precedent: Ned McWherter retained his post as House speaker for the 1986 election and former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey stayed in leadership when he was campaigning for the 2010 race.
As far as how she plans on positioning herself within a field of candidates who have touted similar ideas advanced by Gov. Bill Haslam, Harwell doubles down on her own accomplishments.
“I’m a conservative Republican that wants to see results. I don’t spend my time being angry. I spend my time looking for things that will work for all Tennesseans and I have a pretty good record in that regard.”
About Beth Harwell
Occupation: Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, former associate professor at Belmont University
Home: Belle Meade
Education: Vanderbilt University, Ph.D; George Peabody College, M.S; Lipscomb University, B.A.
Family: Husband Sam, three children
Religion: Church of Christ