A High Wire Act: Quiet Speaker Well Positioned After Haslam, But Next Four Years Will Be a Challenge

House Speaker Beth Harwell was first elected to the Legislature in 1988. No other current House member has served longer. She spent over two decades as a double minority—a woman and a Republican in a House controlled by Democrats.

During her long career she has gotten along by using quiet persuasion and just working hard. She has not been one to push herself forward, be bombastic, or make outrageous statements. This style is how she got to be the first woman Speaker of the House in state history. Her defeat of the better known (outside the chamber) House Caucus Chair Glen Casada for the post surprised a lot of people.

But it also means that Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, her counterpart as speaker of the Senate, is much better known and is perceived as the dominant player in state government these days. Of course, Ramsey ran for governor, which gives him higher name recognition. And he has been out front on trying to unseat incumbent Democrats on the state Supreme Court.

Harwell, while well respected in Nashville and among politicos generally, is little known among the general public. It should be remembered that any legislation that gets to the governor’s desk not only gets passed by Ramsey, but Harwell also had to pass it in the House. And passing it in a 99-member House is harder.

But under Ramsey and Harwell the inheritance tax has been phased out, the gift tax abolished, the sales tax on food cut twice. They fully intend to start phasing out the Hall Income Tax as soon as the state budget allows. They have an amendment on the ballot in November that officially bans a general state income tax forever.

But during Gov. Bill Haslam’s second term, Harwell needs to raise her profile and start to get some credit for what the House has accomplished. She also needs to help her members by offsetting the crazy charges of out-of-state special interest groups that ignore what’s been accomplished. To hear the criticism you would think legislative Republicans are a bunch of tax-and-spend liberals and gun-grabbers.

Ask a liberal if he thinks the current Legislature is liberal.

I have long thought that the next governor’s race would likely be between three women. I personally believe U.S. Sen. Bob Corker is more likely to run for president than to run for governor. Ramsey has denied any interest in doing it again.

The three people best positioned to run in recent years have been Harwell, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, and former state Sen. Jamie Woodson. Woodson seems to have taken herself out of the game by moving over to work for Bill Frist’s non-profit education group. (Though in that position she will be working with most of the top CEOs, i.e. Republican donors, across the state.)

If I handicapped the race now, assuming Woodson is out, I would still make it between three women. The other would be Congresswoman Diane Black.

Harwell has the most experience in state government, is better connected to the donor base, and is positioned to be in the middle of every important state issue over the next four years. But she finds herself in a difficult position. She has to work with Haslam (and the Republican establishment) and satisfy the conservative members of the House.

I suspect, as usual, potential candidates for governor will check around the donor base. I only expect one of the women I’ve mentioned to emerge as a candidate. It is likely to be Harwell if she can manage the balancing act of representing House conservatives while getting along with Haslam and the Republican establishment. The Common Core debate next session may be her biggest challenge.

Congresspeople haven’t fared well running for governor (Zach Wamp, Van Hilleary) and all the big-city mayors are Democrats. And remember no one outside Nashville really knew much about a speaker named Ned McWherter.

Looking at the arc of Harwell’s career I think she’s the odds on favorite to pull it off.

But she needs to get out more.

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