Outside Groups Should Not Be Picking Tennessee's New House Speaker

The vicious in-fighting and blood-letting in the state House of Representatives has already begun—and that’s just among the Republicans. The Speaker of the House, both at the state level and nationally, is a powerful post for a reason. It’s necessary to have a strong leader when you have many more members than the senate. Without discipline, a House soon resembles a mob.

At present the House Republicans do not have a leader, independent Speaker Kent Williams is not seeking another term, and House members are campaigning to replace him. The leading contenders are state Rep. Glen Casada and state Rep. Beth Harwell. The phone calls, the e-mails, and the blog posts are getting ugly. Assorted interest groups have been enlisted to help lobby members for one candidate or another—and these interest groups are going over the top, unchecked by the civility and collegiality among actual House members.

Since incumbent House members know Casada and Harwell, the battle is for the hearts and minds of the new Republican House members, some of whom don’t know either candidate. I hope the freshmen ignore the attacks, because in looking at the allegations I’m not sure I recognize Casada or Harwell myself.

Both Casada and Harwell are good legislators and either would be a good leader. They are both conservatives from Middle Tennessee. Casada is from Williamson County, just South of Nashville, and represents one of the most conservative districts in the state. Harwell represents the Democratic district of Belle Meade, in Nashville. The fact that Harwell has represented a Democratic district since 1988 is a tribute to her political skills. She has a Ph.D from Vanderbilt and has served as chair of the state Republican Party.

But Harwell is being mercilessly attacked as a RINO by Tea Party members and some gun groups. Her two major sins seem to be not campaigning against state Sen. Doug Henry, the Democratic senator who represents her district, and voting against the guns in bars legislation. Harwell the Republican and Henry the Democrat have had an uneasy truce and a working relationship for over two decades, staying out of each other’s races. Legislation to allow people with carry permits to take guns into restaurants that serve alcohol was likely a bridge too far for her district. The bill didn’t need her vote to pass.

Both Casada and Harwell contributed money to Republicans running for the House this year. I’ve always thought Casada was a good legislator. If they had run him for Speaker instead of former state Rep. Jason Mumpower, the whole Williams debacle of two years ago might have been avoided. I also find reprehensible some anonymously generated rumors about his personal life that are being circulated.

I’ve had differences with Harwell on some issues over the years, but there is one thing I always liked about her: She is the only sitting legislator I know of who went into powerful former Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh’s district to campaign against him and raise money for his opponent.

The caucus vote on leadership positions has been scheduled for Dec. 8, though there is a caucus meeting tonight (Thursday) and the vote for the Speaker’s job has been moved up in an attempt to stop the mayhem.

The Republicans ought to be okay with either Casada or Harwell, and both have pledged to appoint Republicans to all the leadership positions. Unity may be restored after the bitter fight. But one thing all the House members ought to agree on: This is their election to pick their leaders. The in-coming freshmen ought to make their own decisions based on their best judgment of who should lead them and a wide variety of issues, not just a couple of special interest issues. Who can advance Gov. Bill Haslam’s agenda and who presents the best face for Republican governance?

The freshmen don’t need outsiders telling them how to vote and they shouldn’t base their decisions on special interest crap being circulated about either candidate. They ought also take into consideration the character of any Speaker candidate using third parties to do the dirty work.

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