By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State Rep. Judd Matheny is mulling a challenge to House Speaker Beth Harwell for the top chamber’s top leadership position, the Tullahoma Republican confirmed in an interview with The Associated Press.
Matheny holds the title of House speaker pro tempore, the only post besides speaker elected by the entire lower chamber of the General Assembly.
The position wields little independent power, and Matheny complained in the interview of being marginalized by other Republican leaders, who he said worked to dilute his key legislative initiatives ranging from loosening gun laws to battling what he perceives as the spread of Islamic law in the United States.
“Other members in our caucus have chosen not to include me in the chain of information and custody of the Legislature,” he said. “I feel like I’ve purposefully been put in a box.”
Matheny, 42, said he holds no personal grudge against Harwell, whom he supported in a hard-fought speaker’s race in 2010. But Matheny said he wants the Legislature to exert more power within state government and to pursue what he called “our true constitutional principles.”
“I just think this body could be more — and do more,” he said.
Republicans hold wide majorities in both chambers, and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is halfway through his four-year term.
Harwell, a former professor and state Republican Party chairwoman from Nashville, was opposed by tea party groups and gun advocates when she first ran for speaker in 2010. She nevertheless defeated Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin in a secret ballot and built a broad coalition in the chamber and a close alliance with Haslam.
The defeat of seven incumbent Republican House members in this month’s primaries has raised questions about whether she will be able hold on to the top job, but she dodged one potential challenge when Casada said he wouldn’t seek a rematch.
Harwell said in an email she’s focused on growing the GOP’s numbers in November’s elections.
“I am proud of our track record in the House,” she said. “With a stronger majority, we can do even more.”
Matheny said he had been considering running for speaker even before the results of the Aug. 2 primary.
He said he was unhappy that Republican leaders sided with the business lobby on a bill seeking to guarantee workers’ rights to store weapons in vehicles parked on company lots, regardless of their employers’ wishes.
The failure of the bill backed by the National Rifle Association caused the gun rights group to pour more than $86,000 into a successful effort to defeat House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart in the primary.
Matheny said he sees no reason to bow to the call by large employers like FedEx and Volkswagen to allow them carve out areas where even people with state-issued handgun carry permits would not be able to store their firearms.
“To even insinuate they’re going to be the cause of criminal behavior is asinine,” he said. “They need their access to their weapons if they so choose.”
Matheny was a main sponsor of a 2011 bill that originally sought to make it a felony to follow some versions of the Islamic code known as Shariah. The proposal caused a national uproar, and hundreds of Muslims came to the Legislature to express fears it would outlaw central tenets of Islam, such as praying five times a day toward Mecca, abstaining from alcohol or fasting for Ramadan.
The measure ultimately enacted by the Legislature was watered down, and the references to specific religions were removed.
Matheny argued at the time that the bill was aimed at fighting terrorism. “They’re hidden all around us,” he said.
Another Matheny-sponsored bill this year set limits on the percentage of foreign workers allowed to work at charter schools. The measure was also criticized by Muslim groups as being targeted at them.
Haslam ultimately allowed the bill to become law without his signature despite constitutional concerns.
Matheny this year raised eyebrows by endorsing challenger Lou Ann Zelenik over freshman U.S. Rep. Dianne Black, a former state representative and senator, in the GOP primary in the 6th Congressional District.
Zelenik’s campaign was largely based on her opposition to radical Islam. While Zelenik was soundly defeated, Matheny said he remains concerned.
“I’m a firm believer in us being a very welcoming society, but if you don’t want to conform to our standards here in this country, you need to leave,” Matheny said.
“Everything is ours to lose, and we have to stand up for it,” he said. “We have to claim our birthright as being Americans.”
Matheny said he’s discussing his potential candidacy with current Republican members and candidates. He said he hasn’t made up his mind about whether a decision would come before or after the November election.
“People need a strong beacon within government,” Matheny said. “And if I can be that person, I want to be that person.”