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Harwell, set to make history, points to principle

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Rep. Beth Harwell was on message and not budging Thursday when she got the nomination of her Republican peers to be Tennessee's first woman to become speaker of the House.

Harwell, from Nashville, is entering her 12th term in the House of Representatives, and the former state Republican Party chair got her message across numerous times -- before and after her victory over Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin in a private ballot in a public setting at the AT&T building in downtown Nashville.

Repeatedly, Harwell referred to Republicans receiving a mandate from voters in the last election.

Repeatedly, she referred to the need to get Governor-elect Bill Haslam's agenda through the legislative process.

Repeatedly, she talked about Republican principles and how she intended to stick to them.

Sixty-three of the 64 Republicans in the caucus voted, with one unnamed abstention. The vote breakdown was not announced. Only the number of votes cast and the name of the winner were given.

Casada admitted he was surprised by the outcome.

When the vote was over, and after Harwell and Casada fielded questions from the media, the two went back inside the room where the caucus conducted further business in private. But as the meeting went on, Casada kept coming out the door, cell phone in hand, fielding calls.

"Several folks were giving me condolences and wishing me the best," he said. "I am disappointed, but I'm content. God has a plan for me, and one of those plans is to support Beth Harwell as speaker of the House.

"I thought I had the votes. I did. But that's a caucus election, and we support the winner, and I support Beth."

The outcome prompted almost immediate analysis about tea party influence, which has come to be its own study in contrast in the state.

On one hand, the tea party has earned an instantly identifiable presence, but for all the talk about tea party impact -- including a belief it might have resulted in Casada defeating Harwell -- the tea partiers have not exactly ruled, even in this extraordinary election year.

Had the tea party prevailed in Tennessee, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey would be preparing his inauguration speech. Ramsey finished third in the gubernatorial primary. Haslam, considered a more moderate candidate, and Harwell, a co-chair of Haslam's campaign, are the ones chosen for the leadership roles outside Ramsey.

Yet whatever cracks anyone might discern within the Republican Party, Harwell put the most significant stamp on the story Thursday when she declared in her pre-vote address, "The reality is we do not need a single Democratic vote to do anything in the House."

The 64-34-1 majority Republicans now hold -- after the slim margin achieved in 2008, which led only to GOP calamity as Democrats put a Republican partner in the speaker's chair -- resounded Thursday.

Republicans are in position to take the wheel and hit the gas with their agenda. More to the point, that would mean hitting the brakes on government's size and spending. That's the new reality, and Harwell hit that point in her three-minute presentation to the caucus before the vote.

All committee officers would be Republicans, she said. And Republicans will hold the majority on all committees.

"That is the only promise I have made as I sought this office," she said.

So no deals, Democrats. No sharing the power. The people have spoken. That's her interpretation of the election, and Democrats would have a difficult time countering her position.

Harwell knows the responsibility of power, however.

"It is an opportunity. It's also a humbling experience for us as a caucus," she said. "We take very seriously the desire to represent the people's will. We believe in states' rights, limited government and low taxation. And you'll see that principle guiding all of our decisions."

Harwell was so conscious of the need to stick to the fundamentals, she made a special point in her address to the caucus that when she strayed from the party line on a "guns in bars" vote, it was to serve the wishes of her district. She added that others in the caucus may have to make similar calls and that she would understand if they did.

Even the most historically meaningful element of the caucus vote almost got lost in the shuffle. When Harwell was asked if she felt a sense of history about her victory, she replied, "I believe I'm the first female speaker. Much more important is that our party has worked so hard to bring us to this point, and we certainly have received a mandate from Tennessee voters that they want to see change in state government."

Moments later, she was asked again about the trailblazing development.

"I don't think it was a factor in today's vote at all," she said. "This was seeking the best person to hold the speakership job, but I hope it's motivating for all those young girls out there interested in political endeavors."

So even given the chance to bask in the opportunity to make history -- a breakthrough the Democrats would probably have loved to claim, but one they never made -- did not distract Harwell from her contention that the people have spoken, it's a Republican day, there are principles to be followed. That was her message.

Harwell's nomination does not make her the speaker. That will come officially when the entire House membership votes in January. The size of that Republican majority, however, will seal Harwell's place as the first woman to be Tennessee's speaker of the House.

So this wasn't especially a woman thing to her. This was a Republican thing. Time to get moving. Harwell was on message, and she wasn't budging.

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