Former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell has a hankering to enter public office again. In fact, after just four years away from the state House, she’s eyeing a congressional race if the 2022 redistricting plan puts her in a strong position.
In an interview Thursday with the Tennessee Lookout, Harwell, a southwest Davidson County Republican, confirmed she is waiting to see what decision the Legislature makes on redistricting lines to determine whether she will run for Congress. She noted the work lies in the Legislature’s hands.
“I really enjoy the legislative process and very few people do. I do enjoy the give and take of the legislative process. I understand the purpose of it. There’s a side of me that misses public policy, and I think I bring some things to the table that would be helpful to Middle Tennessee,” Harwell said Thursday. “But I would have to just wait and see where I am personally and what the district lines look like before I make a decision.”
Harwell said she enjoys the legislative arena because of the fresh issues that confront lawmakers.
“Every day it’s different. Every day there’s a new challenge,” she said.
District lines are to be drawn this fall based on the 2020 federal census figures and public input taken before the Legislature approves a plan early in 2022.
Republicans already hold seven of nine Tennessee congressional seats. But the Legislature could carve up Davidson County, creating eight Republican-friendly districts and possibly opening a path for Harwell to run. Such a move could mean dismantling Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper’s Davidson County power base in the 5th Congressional District, which also includes Dickson and Cheatham counties.
Elected to the state House in 1988, Harwell worked her way through the ranks, first as a Republican minority whip and then Commerce Committee chair before winning the House Speakership in 2011, the first woman in state history to take that post. She made a failed run for governor shortly after leaving the Legislature in 2018 and since then became distinguished visiting professor of political science at MTSU. She took a post on the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors in January 2021.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Hendrell Remus recently said he is prepared for a “nightmare” scenario in redistricting and is ready to take legal action if necessary.
Cooper criticized the potential move by Republicans as a step that would “cripple economic development in Tennessee by ruining the oasis of blue in our red state, our economic crown jewel.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, census figures aren’t expected in Tennessee until September, leaving the Legislature only about four months to prepare a plan to vote on in January.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally believes no “real work” can be on redistricting until the figures are in hand, and he notes “any contemplation or speculation on possible configuration” is premature.
McNally said Thursday he is focused on Senate work rather than Congress and stressed he hasn’t gotten enough information to even consider a plan that would create eight Republican districts rather than stick with a status quo model.
Asked, though, whether he would be intrigued by a Harwell candidacy, McNally gave a glowing perspective of his former colleague, saying, “I respect Speaker Harwell very greatly, and I think she’d make a fine addition to Congress. She’s a good person.”
While slicing up Davidson County could give Republicans an 8-1 advantage in the congressional delegation and help chip away at the Democratic majority in the U.S. House, some pundits say it also could pose a risk to Republican fortunes within a decade.
Putting Democratic voters into Republican-held districts could give Democrats an advantage in case of a blue wave in Tennessee over the next three to four voting cycles, enabling them to win two to three seats created for the sake of one more Republican seat.