Beth Halteman Harwell is the state representative for Tennessee’s 56th district, located in Metro Nashville Davidson County. She has served in this post since 1988 and was elected Speaker of the House by her legislative peers in 2011. She has since held the position through the 2016 term.
Born on July 24, 1957, in the small town of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Beth Halteman was raised by her father, a chiropractor, and her mother, a beautician. Halteman took an interest in politics the summer between her freshman and sophomore years of college after watching the Watergate hearings with her ailing grandmother. She moved to Nashville in order to further her education, earning her B.A. from David Lipscomb University in 1978, her M.S. from Peabody College in 1979, and her Ph.D. in social science education from Vanderbilt University in 1982. While earning her doctorate and shortly after receiving it, she worked as a research analyst for the State Board of Regents until 1983 and subsequently served as a trainer at the University of Tennessee Center for Labor Management until 1986. Halteman then accepted a tenure track position as a professor of political science at Belmont University. She first ran for the General Assembly in 1986, losing to Democrat Jan Bushing by a mere 62 votes. Halteman continued teaching in the interim before defeating Bushing and taking her seat in the State House following the 1988 elections—a rare Republican victory in then heavily Democratic Davidson County.
Early in her legislative career, Halteman focused on sexual abuse legislation, sponsoring a number of bills which stiffened the penalties for sex crimes in Tennessee. One of her most notable victories came in 1992, when she sponsored and passed a bill that lengthened prison terms for rapists; this bill represented a significant feat for the young legislator given the logistics of securing funding to house these additional prisoners. That same year, she married Sam Harwell, with whom she has three children, and who would later find fortune as the CEO and founder of Big Time Toys.
After her successful push to strengthen rape laws, Beth Halteman Harwell was tapped to spearhead Governor Don Sundquist’s 1996 welfare reform initiative, Families First, as lead sponsor of the associated legislation. While the proposal was not enacted in its envisioned form (a pilot program subsidizing full-time jobs at private companies for welfare recipients was eliminated during the amendment process), Harwell helped the governor achieve his primary goal following a lengthy legislative battle so grueling that the governor asserted that one of the other architects of the bill deserved the Nobel peace prize. Ultimately, the program resulted in the removal of 40,000 families from the welfare rolls because of its focus on securing employment for individuals and its strict time limits on benefits.
Shortly after the start of the new millennium, Harwell served as the chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party from 2001 to 2004. During this time, the Republicans gained control of the State Senate. Harwell also played a key fundraising role in George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign as a “Bush Pioneer”—supporters who were charged with convincing other supporters to contribute more than $100,000 to the campaign Harwell also played a significant role in defeating Governor Don Sundquist’s controversial state income tax proposal during the same time period—an episode that she characterized in a 2011 interview as “a very ugly time in the General Assembly.”
In the years preceding her election to the post of Speaker, Harwell worked to expand the state’s public charter schools in the face of significant opposition from Democrats. Her efforts were rewarded in 2009 when her second charter school bill of that calendar year (the first bill was defeated) was passed and signed into law.
Overcoming criticism from her own party, which denounced her as “too moderate,” and opposition from the Democrats along party lines, Harwell was elected in 2011 as the first female Speaker of the House in state history. Harwell has since been crucial in implementing Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative agenda, including the elimination of the state’s inheritance tax (also a longtime goal of Harwell herself), the establishment of the Tennessee Promise scholarship program for graduating high school seniors, and his efforts to streamline the state government, among other various initiatives.
However, Speaker Harwell has taken fire from both the right and the left in her time presiding over the State House; the Democrats feel that she is not doing enough to support left-of-center bipartisan proposals such as Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan, which has twice failed to reach a floor vote, whereas the Republicans feel that she is not supportive enough of some of their more conservative ventures, including her vote against a bill which sought to enshrine the Bible as the official state book and her decision to abstain from voting on a controversial “ag-gag” bill, designed to penalize animal activists who surveil agribusiness practices, in 2013. Despite the criticisms leveled at her from both sides, her success over the course of a long legislative career and, more recently, as Speaker has led some to speculate that she will someday launch a bid to become governor.