Elections Q&A: Former prof leads state House as speaker
Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell is familiar with firsts. As a Belmont professor, she was one of the first Republicans to ever win office in Nashville when she was elected as a state legislator in 1988. Now, she’s the first woman in Tennessee history to become the state’s Speaker of the House when Republicans took over the body for the first time since Reconstruction in 2011. To open a series of Q&A’s about politicians with Belmont ties, Harwell spoke with the Belmont Vision about how her time as a professor influenced her in state government, what has changed since she’s been on Capitol Hill, and about the fate of two bills that may have Belmont implications when the legislature reconvenes next January.
Belmont Vision: First, can you tell me about your time at Belmont? I understand you were a professor of political science there.
Beth Harwell: I was. I was an assistant professor of political science for four years on a full-time basis. I had taught part time when I was in graduate school at Vanderbilt, and then I taught four years there. I really enjoyed my time there. And I loved it. I taught political science, I taught international relations, the whole thing.
BV: Was there anything you took from your time at Belmont that you’ve brought with you?
BH: Well, you know, I really believe that being a teacher was a great preparation for being an elected official, because a lot of what I do is answer questions. You certainly take questions when you’re a teacher, because that’s the type of instruction I was encouraged was a lot of interaction and a lot of questions. They came prepared with questions every day. I really enjoyed it. You’ll find this interesting. I taught a political communications course one time, and I used to always try to have my students do something in practical nature with the political world and I made my students go and cover an event here in the state Capitol and they write about the who, what, when, where why of the event, and then they got the newspaper the next day and they compared what they wrote with what they wrote in the article, especially what the headline was. And it was always interesting, because they would say, ‘Well that wasn’t such a big deal. Why would they emphasize that?’ or ‘Well, they really turned that one around.’ It was a really good experience with that. I learned a little bit of knowledge of the media that way, but also I really do believe being in front of a classroom and taking questions was good preparation.
BV: From there, why did you decide to run for the state legislature, and especially as a Republican? They were nowhere near the majority they are now.
BH: And you know really, in hindsight, if I knew then what I know now, I probably would have thought, “Well that’s a hopeless cause,” because you’re right. There had never been an elected Republican in Davidson County in any office. The seat that I ran for had been held by a Democratic incumbent for 16 years, and he decided to run against [former mayor] Bill Boner for Congress. So the seat became open, and I thought ‘Well, now’s my chance to put a little bit of this book knowledge to practical use to see if I could do what I’ve been talking about all this time.’ And I really did decide to run as a Republican based on the platform of the party. I actually sat and read the platforms of the parties. I had taught it for years, and said ‘I’m a Republican. I really believe that I am.’ I didn’t know where the Republican Party headquarters was located. I just read about how you get to file the paperwork and how you do it. I did it, and really ran my own campaign. My campaign contributions – I didn’t know the Republican campaign circles at the time. I just asked people at my church for money. …
So it was really how I got started. We would cringe if a candidate did that today, but that’s literally how I got started, and since then, it’s grown from there. I literally ran a door-to-door campaign. I mean, I was not known in Nashville at the time. The people that really knew me were my students, and half of them didn’t like me. No, I’m just kidding. Some of the political science students worked on my campaign the first time around. They were good volunteers, and I still keep in touch with those kids. They’re not kids anymore. A lot of the kids I still keep in touch with from Belmont worked in my first campaign.
BV: Did you win that first campaign?
BH: I did not. If you ever think that every vote doesn’t count, lose by 32 votes and I’ll tell you, every vote counts. I had been declared the winner on the 10 o’ clock news by Chris Clark, and by 2 o’ clock that morning I had lost because of absentee ballots. I decided to just gracefully accept it, and just bide my time. I remember Lamar Alexander called and congratulated me. This was when I became friends with Senator Alexander. He asked to come by and see me, and I met with him, and he said ‘I’d like to help you in politics. What I think you need to do is get involved in the community,’ It kind of groomed me a little bit, so I had more of a connection with the community when I came back two years later
BV: Back then, both as you were running and once you got to the state house, could you expected what has happened, both to you and the party?
BH: No, I really wouldn’t have. If you would have told me back then that the Republican Party was going to be the majority party in the state, I would have said ‘Well, that’s not going to happen in my lifetime.’ I had no idea I would ever be Speaker. That’s just not something I ever saw myself doing down here. Maybe a committee chair if we ever got the majority, but never Speaker. But here I am, and I love it.
BV: Were some of the issues you focused on then still prevalent today?
BH: The really interesting thing I learned about issues over time is people think legislators are leaders. I’ve really come to the conclusion they’re followers. What the public is interested in is what we become interested in. You know, we don’t really determine the agenda the way people think we do. A perfect example, back when I ran for office, everything was about the homeless and what you were going to do about the homeless, and whether we were going to build facilities for the homeless in major metropolitan areas. I remember taking a policy stand on that and how much money should be allocated for that. The interesting thing is in my last election cycle when I had an opponent, I didn’t mention once the homeless. Now are there more homeless in Nashville than there were that many years ago? Of course, but it’s not what people are talking about now. We really reflect the will of the people who elect us. If we’re here voting and talking about an issue, it’s because we hear about it back home.
BV: Is there anything else that’s changed in our time here, the atmosphere or the things you all consider… What has changed the most, other than the majority party?
BH: Politics, like a lot of things, is really people-oriented. I guess the best preparation for this or anything you do in life is working well with others. Part of leadership is wanting to get people to go on the same path you’re walking. I don’t know that that’s changed. I do think we’ve done a lot to reform the system. When the Republicans became the majority, we said we would make a difference in the way we govern, and I think we’ve accomplished that. I think we’ve streamlined the process. I think we’ve worked on our agenda items, which are less government, less taxation. We’ve certainly accomplished those two goals. All the things this party stands for, I think we really have accomplished those, and I look forward to a lot of years of Republican leadership.
BV: There were also a couple pieces of legislation that either would have a Belmont connection or other things. One was the bill that the Governor vetoed that was about Vanderbilt and its all-comers policy that required all student organizations to adhere to a nondiscrimination policy. Do you think that bill could set a potential precedent for private schools if passed by both houses and signed by the Governor?
BH: Well, yes. It could have, and I think that was the governor’s concern. He has publicly said he does not approve of the Vanderbilt policy, and does not think it is wise public policy for their school. But it is a private school, and so he felt like it wasn’t his role to step in. The bill as it was originally drafted was to apply to only public universities and colleges. It was amended on the floor, and that changed the nature of the bill and gave all of us a little concern. But I don’t agree with Vanderbilt’s all-comer policy, and I don’t think it’s appropriate. I suspect that legislation will be back, but I think it will apply only to public universities and colleges.
BV: There’s another piece of legislation that our president, Bob Fisher, spoke in front of a Senate committee about. It was related to allowing folks have firearms in their cars on their employers’ parking lots. What’s your take on that bill going into the next session, assuming the Republicans keep the majority? How do you expect it to fare?
BH: I think that the legislature has made very clear that they are strong supporters of the Second Amendment, that people have the right to bear arms. But we also comply with the entire Constitution, and part of your constitutional rights is to have individual property. So when Belmont owns property, they make the rules up. And so if they don’t want to have guns on a college campus, I think they have the right to say and post that no guns are allowed on campus. Just as we say restaurants allow guns, even if they serve alcohol, we also allow restaurants to post. The Sunset Grille can post and say ‘No guns on our property.” I think really that bill lacked a balance. We were too guns-right oriented and not enough individual property rights oriented. I think we’ll find a balance, and we’ll be able to do something.
But let me say this. I was very proud of your president for participating in the process and coming down here. I like to see that from our private institutions, coming in and being involved in the process, because we want and need their input.