More history will be made when Gov.-elect Bill Haslam is sworn in on Saturday. It will be the first time since 1869 Republicans will have had control of the Tennessee Senate, House of Representatives and governorship.
The only absence from Tuesday’s opening session of the 107th General Assembly in Nashville was the late Ulysses Jones Jr., D-Memphis, who died Nov. 9, 2010. His unfilled seat was draped with a Tennessee flag.
Rep. Beth Harwell, 53, of Nashville, was elected by a unanimous vote of 98-0. She was sworn in by Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Gary Wade.
Democrats did not offer a candidate of their own. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said Democrats offered no opposition to Harwell so as to make a statement.
“We have heard the message from the voters,” he said. “They want the government to work and they want those governing to work together. We want that, too.”
Harwell said she was truly humbled to be a part of the leadership lineage in the state. She reminded the freshman delegates they are in a position limited to very few Tennesseans and to never take their responsibilities lightly. She said the elections are behind them and it is now time to begin the more difficult task of governing.
The new speaker promised to treat all members of the House of Representatives with respect and fairness and work hard every day to be worthy of their trust. She invoked the name of President Theodore Roosevelt, who spoke of the best prize life offers — the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
“America was built on certain ideals and principles. The first is a strong belief in states’ rights. Our founding fathers believed that government is best that is closest to the people,” she said in her opening remarks, which lasted about five minutes. “The second principle is that power comes from God and it’s instilled upon the people, then loaned to us, their elected officials, for a period of time. The beauty of our system is that power always resides with the people.
“In this chamber, we are not kings and queens. We are servants.”
She said Tennesseans expect their representatives to serve them well and honorably. Citizens sent a powerful message on election day.
“They are frustrated with the out-of-control spending they see in Washington, D.C., and they do not want to see it here,” she continued. “They expect us to exercise fiscal restraint and balance the budget without raising taxes and that is just what we’ll do.
“They are also tired of politics as usual. The bickering and stalemate that exists in Congress is not acceptable. I will always be true to the principles of the party nominating me, and I understand legislative debate, but over the years I have observed this body set aside partisanship and regional differences to do the right thing for Tennessee because this body is made up of statesmen and the people of this state expect and deserve nothing less.”
She said each representative must ask themselves the following questions before voting on a single piece of legislation: Does it increase the size of government? Does it make it easier to start and operate a business in Tennessee? Does it keep the state moving forward in reforming education to best meet the needs of future generations?
“How we answer those questions will determine whether Tennessee remains a great place to work and to live,” she said.
During her statement, Harwell very briefly acknowledged the significance the day represented for women, and her thankfulness for the guidance and influence of women in her life; also mentioned were her political mentors, former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson and former Gov. Winfield Dunn.
She also recognized her family and her role as a wife and mother.
“I may be known as speaker in this House, but in their house, I’m referred to as ‘Mom’ and it is a title I wear very proudly,” she said.
Watson said it was very refreshing to hear Harwell speak of God and motherhood.
“Beth is a proven leader and I believe the entire state will benefit from her knowledge and experience,” Watson said.
Brooks opened the session as acting chaplain, leading its members in the “Lord’s Prayer.”
“As we pray, let us remember those in Arizona who have lost loved ones and who are still suffering,” he said.
He was later appointed by Harwell to serve on the House Rules Committee.
“It’s an honor to be appointed to the House Rules Committee,” Brooks said. “This committee recommends to the House the set of temporary rules for the House of Representatives.”