Former State Rep. Beth Harwell Reflects on Her Time as Tennessee House Speaker

Former State Rep. Beth Harwell Reflects on Her Time as Tennessee House Speaker


Live from Music Row Thursday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed former Tennessee Speaker Beth Harwell in studio to talk about her time as speaker for eight years.

Leahy: We are joined in studio by our good friend, former Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives Beth Harwell.

You know, Beth, as I look at the country today and I look at the problems we have, I’m a big believer in the concept of federalism and state sovereignty, as you are.

Harwell: Absolutely.

Leahy: Now I look at this and I say, you know what? I think the most important job in America today is to be the speaker of the House of Representatives in a red state legislature. That’s how I see it.

Harwell: It’s a great job. It really is. And I thoroughly enjoyed being speaker. And you’re right. Federalism is so key. And I think we’ve seen this in the COVID thing because certain states have handled the crisis differently than other states.

Certain cities have been doing things differently. And you’ve seen a sharp contrast. But states are the laboratory for change.

And that gave us an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t work rather than a national mandate.

Leahy: Is it Justice Brandeis who said that back in 1910?

Harwell: Absolutely. Yes, he did.

Leahy: States being the laboratories of change. Each state gets to do what they want. And if it works, maybe other states will copy it.

Harwell: That’s right.

Leahy: 30 years in the Tennessee General Assembly. Is that an exhausting job to have as a state representative?

Harwell: Again, as we’ve mentioned, one of the things I liked about it is that I had children at the time that were smaller. I could come home every night.

It’s a part-time job, so they’re only in session January through May or June. The work is intense when we’re there. But we are also in our communities working there as well.

So I think that gives us a great balance. Of course, being speaker is a little bit more of a full-time job because you serve on state boards on a number of different things.

And being speaker is something I thoroughly enjoyed doing. I used to use this as an illustration because people ask me, what does a speaker do?

And really they’re really in charge of all parliamentary procedure. And if you want to be successful in the legislative body, you have to understand the parliamentary procedure.

It just has to happen. So you follow that. And then secondly, I always used to use it as an illustration because a lot of times when I would speak to groups –  they’d be little third-graders because that’s when they come and visit the state capitol – and would tell them that being speaker of the state House is a lot like being the teacher in front of a classroom.

Can you talk anytime you want to? No, you have to raise your hand and the teacher calls on you. The same is true in the state House. No one can speak unless the speaker acknowledges them and calls on them.

Unbeknownst to a lot of the public is I have a little button right there on my platform so I can turn people’s microphones off and on at their desks. (Laughter)

Leahy: I think you may have used that once or twice.

Harwell: I did use it once or twice.

Leahy: I do recall that. I do recall. Before we get into this, you have witnessed history. You’ve witnessed the huge transformation in the Tennessee General Assembly from when you first went in 1990 and Republicans were a super minority.

Then 2009, 2010, became the majority, and now are in both houses a supermajority. That must have been exciting, thrilling, and exhausting all at the same time.

Harwell: It really was. And, you know, as I said, it’s a transition to moving from a minority party to the governing party.

I think we’ve made that transition well. But who we have to thank are the people. I mean, in this great land, the highest office anyone can hold is that of a citizen.

And our citizens spoke and they’ve given us that supermajority. And I think during the time I was there, we served the public well and I think they currently are as well.

Leahy: So you served as speaker from 2011 to …

Harwell: 2018.

Leahy: Technically 2019, but the session was over in May of 2018. Eight years as speaker. Has any speaker, other than Jimmy Naifeh, there has been any speaker who served longer?

Harwell: Oh, yeah, they have Ned McWherter.

Leahy: Oh, how could I forget that!

Harwell: He’s the one. He’s the only one really.

Leahy: How could I forget Ned McWherter?

Harwell: He was speaker for a long time. Almost 29 years.

Leahy: Before he became governor. Now there’s a guy who knew how to use power.

Harwell: Boy, you’re not kidding.

Leahy: Wow. He was an effective leader.

Harwell: He was very effective. Not that we didn’t always agree with that, but he was an effective leader.

Leahy: I look at the House of Representatives now, and it’s 99 members and 72 of which are Republican. 27 are Democrats. Of those 27 – this is my words, not yours – I think 26 of them are pretty close to outright left-wing lunatics.

This is my view, right? Just socialists. I don’t see any opportunity for conversation. They used to be like the one sort of centrist there now. You know who I’m going to talk about?

Harwell: Oh sure.

Leahy: There’s one guy. One guy in the Democratic Party in the Tennessee House of Representatives today who was like the Democrats were when you first started – like most of them were and that’s John Mark Windell.

Now, John is a very nice guy, a very smart guy. He votes his conscience. Is he always going to be a Democrat? (Harwell laughs) I think he is.

Harwell: Well, I made my plead to him, and he’s going to stay a Democrat, I think. On the other hand, it’s nice to have someone like him that can be reasonable and work things out and offer something for everyone.

But you’re right. The rural Democrat Party has left Tennessee and doesn’t exist anymore. And so all you have are Democrats who have a very liberal persuasion. And it’s a shame because that makes them in a state like Tennessee rather ineffective.

Leahy: Totally ineffective because, you know, the thing I mean, the things that I’ve seen them introduce, they’re crazy. (Laughter)

They’re just crazy. Fortunately, here they are not in power. And it doesn’t look like there’s a prospect for change in the immediate future.

Harwell: Right. In the immediate future. But you always have to be cautious as your cities grow, which is happening and people come in from other places, which we welcome them.

Leahy: California.

Harwell: It makes it difficult. I mean, you can see what has happened in other big cities and only don’t want that for our major cities.

Leahy: Eight years as speaker. How hard was the job? What was the best thing about the job as speaker?

Harwell: The job was one I thoroughly enjoy because I enjoy public policy and I enjoy working with other people. And I used to tell my members again that the best criteria for being a good legislator are back in kindergarten when you got your first report card.

And there was a little thing that said, plays well with others. (Leahy laughs) To work on the legislative body you’ve got to get along with others.

You can’t just be all about yourself and your story. And I think we have a body that for the most part, does that. But I think the hardest part of the job and the easiest part of the job was the people.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know my colleagues. But managing personnel is one of the hardest things. You are in business.

You know that’s one of the hardest things you can do is manage a group of people. And you compound, and compound that with the fact that I don’t hire them and I don’t fire them. The public does. I just have to manage.

Leahy: But you do have authority in terms of: you get to pick the committee chairman.

Harwell: The committee chairman and all the staff. There’s about 160 staff that work for them.

Leahy: So there’s power there and the ability to control things. So what’s interesting to me is now you’ve got a Ph.D. in politics. You love this stuff. You enjoyed the job. You did it for eight years. Do you miss being speaker?

Harwell: There are certain aspects of it I certainly miss. And then there are times when they are talking about a troublesome issue down there and I thought, well, maybe it’s better not to be herding the cats right now.

I’ve enjoyed both worlds. To do it for eight years I think it was a true blessing. And I do believe it was time for me to move on.

Leahy: So you think it was time to move on?

Harwell: I do.

Leahy: Had you stayed, you could still be speaker, right?

Harwell: If my colleagues allowed me to.

Leahy: They would. But you chose and said to run for governor, right. And you didn’t win the primary.

Harwell: No, I did not.

Leahy: Was that a tough loss for you?

Leahy: I certainly understood there was a dynamic going on that they wanted just fresh people. And I certainly understood that.

And I wish Governor Lee well. I thought that I brought to the table the experience in state government. I had balanced eight budgets. I knew the State Department.

I knew what the National Guard was and how to use it. And I just thought I brought something to the table. But the public had other ideas in mind, and I certainly accept their will.

Leahy: What was it like being in that primary when you had 20 plus million from Randy Boyd criticizing Diane Black who you served in the House of Representatives with?

And then Diane Black spending 20 plus million criticizing Randy Boyd and then sneaking in the middle…

Harwell: It was a perfect storm, wasn’t it?

Leahy: Perfect storm and then, there sneaks in Bill Lee, who’s got money. He spent five or 10 million bucks. You didn’t have five or 10 million bucks, I don’t think.

Harwell: No, I didn’t. We raised a significant amount of money. I fought for a primary. It’s hard when you’re in a Republican primary because money freezes.

People say I’ll contribute to you when the primary is over kind of thing.

Leahy: Gee thanks. Here in Tennessee, it’s a statewide office right now. It’s a Republican primary. Help me now.

Harwell: But I think that they had some wealthy people that ran in that race. This is America. You can do what you want with your money.

Leahy: You can spend your money how you want, right? I’m in favor of that.

Harwell: But I think we had some good discussions.

Lee: The Tennessee Star liked it. I think every major candidate advertised with us. We love those kinds of races. (Laughter)

Listen to the full second hour here:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Beth Harwell” by Beth Harwell. 














Former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell Weighs in on Texas Democrats’ Behavior and Her Background

Former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell Weighs in on Texas Democrats’ Behavior and Her Background


Live from Music Row Thursday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed former Tennessee Speaker Beth Harwell in studio to talk about her background and weighs in on the Texas Democrats that fled their legislative duties.

Leahy: We are delighted to welcome to our microphones the former Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, Beth Harwell. Good morning, Beth.

Harwell: Good morning! Good to be with you this morning.

Leahy: Well, it’s great to be with you as well. And, you know, we were talking a little bit off-air about this. One of the things that we’ve tried to do with this program is to bring state legislators in and to kind of talk to them, get to know them, and learn kind of what their motivations are.

One of the things that are interesting is when we started this, we have a particular ideology that we promote. And there were a couple of contentious issues.

And we know that some of them were moderate members of the House and the state Senate. We kind of took exception to some of our reporting.

But what we found is many of those people we’ve had in studio here, and we’ve got to know them and talk to them about it, and it’s very interesting because once you get to know somebody well – you probably know this from your long record in public service –  you just sort of understand their motivations and you don’t get focused so much on the ideological differences. And so we found it very interesting to talk to these legislators.

Harwell: And I just wanted to thank you for that. I reached out to you just to say thank you for covering state government so well and including state legislators.

At the bottom of the day, state and local government impact your life within the federal government. We may not realize that, but it’s certainly true.

And I’m just pleased to see that we have a strong state legislature that’s doing its job and commend you for covering them.

Leahy: The greatest state in the United States of America, beyond a doubt, is Tennessee.

Harwell: You got it.

Leahy: It really is.

Harwell: It is. You understand that. You see all these people moving here, there’s a reason.

Leahy: Who wouldn’t want to live in Tennessee?

Harwell: That’s right.

Leahy: I mean really, no state income taxes, nice people, a good business environment, and a state legislature that is not full-time.

Harwell: That’s correct. I think that’s really refreshing. You hear so much from people in Washington who come and say to you that they’re visiting in their district. (Leahy chuckles) 

Well, my legislators don’t visit in their districts, they live in their districts. They go to church with their fellow citizens. They are members of exchange clubs and Rotary Clubs, so they’re involved in their community.

And I think that makes a tremendous difference. And the other vital thing to realize is that they live under the laws that they pass for everyone else. And that’s a great thing.

Leahy: Just as an aside as a former speaker of the Tennessee House, what’s your reaction to this, this is my term, not yours, the flea baggers, 67 Democrat members of the Texas House of Representatives, who when the governor called a special session to address election integrity bills, instead of participating in that, these 67 Democratic state legislators got in two chartered private planes not wearing their masks – a violation of numerous FAA rules and regulations, I believe.

And then they flew off to Washington, D.C. so that the Texas House of Representatives now does not have a quorum and can’t conduct business.

As a former speaker of the House of Representatives in Tennessee, how do you react to that?

Harwell: Well, it angers me. It truly angers me. And I absolutely agree that when they return home, they should be arrested.

They have a responsibility. If they don’t want to live up to that responsibility, you don’t run for office. But at the state legislative level, you have to be in attendance for the legislature to conduct its business.

And that’s totally unacceptable for them to have walked off. And it was just a publicity stunt. What was the point in going to Washington, D.C.?

Leahy: To have lunch with Kamala Harris apparently.

Harwell: Yes, apparently so.

Leahy: As I say, the legal but not legitimate vice president of the United States. My words, not yours. Beth, it’s interesting about this.

I saw that Governor Abbott, who is a pretty clever guy, said if we do these special sessions, I call them in 30 days, and if they’re not here and the 30 days is over,

I’m going to call another special session until the election of 2022. Apparently, these Texas Democrats may be outside the state for some time.

Harwell: For some time, yes. And, you know, it’s kind of a shame because they’re not even living up to their responsibility as the minority party.

As the minority party, you have a responsibility to try to make legislation better, to give your input. And they’re not doing that.

And now I’m a big believer in strong elections and strong controls on elections. And I think anyone that believes in fair democracy will believe that’s a good idea.

So I’m supportive of what the Tennessee legislature is wanting to do. But even if I wasn’t, I feel like I’d have a responsibility to sit at the table and try to help.

Leahy: During your time in the Tennessee House of Representatives, do you recall ever any members of the House of Representatives while you were a regular member or while you were a speaker, running away from their duty?

Harwell: I don’t. Now they came close during the agonizing state income tax.

Leahy: The agonizing state income tax back in 1999 to 2002. (Laughs)

Harwell: But we stayed and we worked it out. But there were some threats during that time. But during my tenure, I don’t recall any of that.

And by the way, I have to say on that note, you mentioned it earlier, we can be very proud that we don’t have state income taxes.

And one of my major goals when I became speaker was to eliminate the haul income tax. Because until we did that, we still technically had a state income tax.

Leahy: And tell our listeners what the haul income tax is – and I’m gonna say this – what it was.

Harwell: Yes. What it was. Which is a beautiful word.

Leahy: That’s a beautiful phrase.

Harwell: Yes. What it was. Well, it was a tax on dividends. And it really hurt working people because they save their money all these years.

And then when they came to retire, they had to pay this tremendous haul income tax – was a real incentive for people to move their assets to Florida. And we knew that we were losing people because of that.

Leahy: Of course. People are logical and rational.

Harwell: Right. But what I respected was we figured out a way to phase it out over a number of years so that the state budget was not harmed at the time.

We were not flooded with money the way they are now. So we did it in a very fiscally responsible way. But to eliminate a tax when you have the ability, that’s a wonderful thing.

Leahy: I should know this, Beth, but I’ll just ask you here on air, where are you from originally?

Harwell: Originally, I’m from Pennsylvania. I grew up there. But I came to Tennessee in 1974 to attend David Lipscomb University.

Leahy: David Lipscomb. Did you go to Lipscomb?

Harwell: Yeah. Went there for four years. Loved it.

Leahy: No kidding? Are you Church of Christ?

Harwell: Yes. I was raised Church of Christ. And in Pennsylvania, there are not many of them.

Leahy: No, they’re not. Well, we have something in common. I’m also a Church of Christ.

Harwell: I didn’t realize that.

Leahy: Converted just before I married my lovely wife, who’s from Texas. And, of course, as you know, the Church of Christ is centered in Tennessee and Texas.

Harwell: And Texas. Right. I had a sister who went to Abilene Christian.

Leahy: My lovely wife went to Abilene Christian. My daughter went to wait for it … Pepperdine.

Harwell: Pepperdine! Okay.

Leahy: Which is technically Church of Christ.

Harwell: It’s Church of Christ.

Leahy: But it’s in Malibu.

Harwell: My other sister went to Harding. So we’ve got all the Church of Christ covered this morning.

Leahy: Absolutely. In Searcy, Arkansas. Lots of people in Nashville went to Harding.

Listen to the full second hour here:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Texas Democrats” by Dan Patrick.