Harwell on Durham: No impact on 2018 run for governor

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — House Speaker Beth Harwell said Tuesday that the scandal surrounding a Republican lawmaker who has gone on hiatus amid sexual harassment allegations shouldn’t damage her prospects as a serious gubernatorial candidate in Tennessee.

The Nashville Republican emphasized to reporters after a speech to the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business that she has not yet made up her mind about a run for governor in 2018.

“I’m looking at it; I think a number of good people are,” she said. “I’m looking at it, but it’s a little early to decide right now.”

Harwell said she has been working toward a “cultural change” at the state Capitol after allegations of inappropriate behavior by Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, toward women at the Legislature.

Durham has denied any wrongdoing, but last week stepped down as House majority whip and later withdrew from the House caucus before announcing a leave of absence to seek medical and pastoral help.

Harwell last week called on Durham to resign and ordered an overhaul of the chamber’s sexual harassment policies for the first time in 19 years.

“I take this very seriously,” Harwell said Tuesday. “There is nothing I could have done prior to this, because I knew nothing.”

Harwell said she was unable to act earlier until The Tennessean last month obtained text messages Durham had sent to two women after midnight, asking them to send him pictures. Before that, all rumors about the lawmaker were just hearsay, she said.

Harwell is a former chairwoman of the state Republican party and a state lawmaker since 1989. She became the first female House speaker in Tennessee history in 2011. Harwell has publically considered bids for governor or the U.S. Senate in the past, only to decide against running. She was asked by a reporter whether the fallout from the Durham scandal has hurt her prospects for statewide office.

“No more than any of the other issues that confront us,” Harwell said.

“I think we’ll come to a resolution on this,” she said. “And hopefully we’ll all learn a lesson.”

Harwell is among several potential Republican candidates to succeed term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam. Others include U.S. Rep. Diane Black, state Sens. Mark Norris and Mark Green, former Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty and his successor, Randy Boyd.

Her political action committee had a balance of more than $670,000 at the start of the year. Major contributions in 2015 included $25,000 from businessman David Ingram, $10,000 from Philip Morris parent Altria and $6,000 from Comcast.

Note: Jeff Woods has a Q&A transcript of Harwell’s comments HERE.