PHOTO: House Speaker Beth Harwell./Submitted
Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell isn’t a Tennessee native, but her 30 years serving in the General Assembly remove any doubts about where her loyalties lie.
Harwell, the first female Speaker of the House in state history, is aiming now to lead in a different way: as the state’s governor.
“It’s been an honor to serve in that leadership role,” Harwell said of becoming the House’s speaker, demurring praise to supportive male colleagues in the legislature.
But, in her gubernatorial bid, “most important to me is that I have a record of performance,” she said.
Born in rural Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Harwell’s family moved to the Nashville area during her senior year of high school.
She went on to attend Lipscomb University, majoring in social studies, before receiving her master’s from Peabody College and her doctorate in social science education from Vanderbilt University. Harwell also taught at Belmont University.
In 1986, when the Republicans were the state’s minority party, Harwell ran for the state House against Democrat Jan Bushing. She lost by 62 votes.
Harwell said the experience taught her much about her district.
“It’s about knowing when to stand up and speak, and also about knowing how to sit down and listen,” she explained.
Harwell was first elected in 1988 to represent District 56, containing Davidson County, before being elected by the assembly to fill the role of Speaker of the House in 2011.
She also served as the Tennessee Republican Party chair from 2001 to 2004, when the Republicans gained control of the Senate.
“I know there’s a glamour and a glitz to the federal level but I never wanted to be there,” Harwell said. “I’m pleased that under President Trump some of those issues can be returned to the state level.”
If elected, Harwell said her primary focus will continue to be on maintaining a balanced state budget, like she has by signing into law for each of the past eight budgets.
“We actually balance it,” Harwell explained. “We don’t use any funny numbers.”
“We’re the lowest-debt state in the nation, and my number-one goal is to keep our financial house in order,” she said.
She also pointed to the state’s business-friendly policies and low tax rate, which she has supported through tort reform and the elimination of the inheritance and gift taxes.
With her extensive educational background, Harwell said her top issue has always been schools.
“Barack Obama tried to push Common Core down our throats,” she said, which the state refused to accept, writing their own standards.
Harwell noted the “enormous” amount of money the U.S. Department of Education consumes, referencing the recent cyber attacks which caused the General Assembly to throw out TNReady test scores from school district’s final assessments.
“That whole system needs to be reevaluated,” she said, noting the state comptroller is doing a complete evaluation of the testing company.
Harwell also said she wants to implement more apprenticeship programs in high schools and beyond. “We need to encourage more young people to learn vocational technical skills,” she said.
Harwell said she would seek more federal block grants for the state’s health department, but would ultimately try to solve the problem at the state level.
“I would love to see healthcare to return to us,” she said, “so we can curtail costs and cover more people.”
“When Governor Bredesen came in, he did what had to be done was curtail the program [TennCare] because it was bankrupting us,” Harwell said in reference to Bredesen’s removal of 200,000 people from the state’s costly Medicaid program.
As for the opioid crisis, Harwell said Gov. Bill Haslam has already been at work on the issue, with a plan that limits opioid prescriptions to a five-day supply, increases penalties for those dealing fentanyl, and increases the number of TBI agents to combat the problem.
Also, “We’ve put more money into rehabilitation courts,” Harwell said. “We will not incarcerate our way out of this problem.”
Harwell points to her past successes as a legislator when looking at the other candidates in the race.
“Other candidates are making promises, I’ve already kept those promises,” she said, pointing to the popular topic of immigration. “Sanctuary cities are already illegal.”
Harwell said what sets her apart from the pack is her experience in the state’s government.
“I’ll be ready for the job on day one,” she said.
Occupation: House Speaker, assistant professor at Belmont University
Education: Bachelor’s degree in social studies from Lipscomb University; master’s degree from Peabody College; Ph.D. in social science education from Vanderbilt University.
Community involvement: Tennessee State Museum Foundation Board; Member David Lipscomb University Business Advisory Council, Member; International Women’s Forum, Board of Directors, Member; Tennessee Court System Advisory Committee, Member; Nashville Children’s Theater, Board of Directors, Member.
Family: Husband, Sam Harwell, three children, Allie, Sam, Tucker
Visit her website at bethharwell.com.