By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State Rep. Judd Matheny is no longer considering a challenge to fellow Republican Beth Harwell for House speaker next year, he said Thursday.
Matheny, a strict gun rights advocate and a supporter of curbing what he sees as the spread of radical Islam in the state, announced last month that he was looking at a bid for the top post in the 99-member House because he felt marginalized by other Republican leaders.
But Matheny said in an interview in his legislative office on that he will instead seek another term in his current position as House speaker pro tempore. Besides speaker, it is the only post elected by the entire lower chamber of the General Assembly.
“It’s all sort of part of feeling your way into the majority and leadership roles,” he said. “I’ve been here 10 years now, and this has always been typically a sideline role. And I think it can be more, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Matheny said his decision follows discussions with fellow lawmakers and a meeting with Harwell.
“The best option for the most people at the current time is this arrangement.”
Matheny said he expects to have an increased role in the next legislative session and will work to improve coordination between the House and Senate and with Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration.
Matheny said his talks with Harwell resulted in an agreement for her to support him in his bid to return as pro tem. But Harwell said her focus is on November’s elections — not on leadership races within the Republican caucus.
“I made it clear to him that I have one vote on that just like every other caucus member does,” she said. “And whoever the caucus chooses as their leadership, I’m going to work with well.”
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 now dodged a second potential challenge after Casada announced he wouldn’t seek a rematch.
Matheny’s potential candidacy had excited some leaders of tea party groups like the 9.12 Project of Tennessee. Organizer J. Lee Douglas in a recent email to fellow members said Matheny was a better option than Harwell because her “loyalty to the Republican Party competes with her loyalty to us.”
Matheny was a main sponsor of a 2011 bill that sought to make it a felony to follow some versions of the Islamic code known as Shariah.
He argued at the time that the bill was aimed at fighting terrorism, but the proposal caused a national uproar. 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 watered down version of the bill ultimately enacted by the Legislature bore little resemblance to the original proposal and references to any specific religion were removed.
Matheny also raised eyebrows this year 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 this year. Black soundly defeated Zelenik, whose campaign was largely based on her opposition to radical Islam.
The Haslam administration last month released a letter to Republican leaders to try to quell persistent grumbling about the alleged influence of radical Islam on state government. The governor’s chief deputy, Claude Ramsey, in the letter denied any “promotion or advancement of religious ideology,” and specifically ruled out any move toward Shariah law.