Sunday column: Harwell’s walk down a political tight rope

The political weather has become uncomfortably hot and humid for House Speaker Beth Harwell this summer with criticism of her acrobatic performances on the Insure Tennessee issue and the Rep. Jeremy Durham affair.

The heat comes from both ends of the political spectrum. You can currently find some folks speculating that Harwell’s balancing acts in these two awkward situations not only jeopardize her tentative plans to run for governor in 2018, but could also threaten her re-election as speaker in January and maybe even re-election to her House seat this fall.

Minority Democrats have uniformly bashed Harwell’s stance on Insure Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam’s failed attempt to expand Medicaid coverage in Tennessee — first for dodging an embrace of the plan and, more recently, for setting up a task force, christened the “3-Star Healthy Project,” to find some less comprehensive alternative that Obamacare-hating Republicans could support in the 2017 session.

Derisive Democrats have heaped scorn upon the effort, using labels such as “political cover,” “fig leaf” or, at best, “tinkering around the edges.” There are even skeptical Republicans, some of whom suggest the move is motivated by Harwell’s need to shore up her own re-election to a Nashville House district that, while designed to tilt Republican, does have a significant contingent of Democrats. She actually has a couple of Democrats competing for the nomination to oppose her in November and they’re making Insure Tennessee a campaign issue.

Majority Republicans, meanwhile, have seemingly become somewhat split on Harwell’s efforts to deal with Durham by setting up an ad hoc committee to investigate allegations that the Franklin Republican engaged in sexual harassment activities. The committee’s objective is to determine whether the facts warrant his expulsion from the House, a move that, under the state constitution, can be achieved only by a House floor vote.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery III was tasked by the committee with handling the investigation and his staff’s preliminary report suggests, rather strongly, there is fire beneath the sexual harassment smoke. The investigators also looked at Durham’s campaign finance disclosures (as suggested by a former Durham employee) and decided they raised a possibility he had diverted campaign money to personal business use. The Registry of Election Finance is now investigating that potential of violating state law, too.

At the same time, however, the Harwell-appointed committee’s doings have also come under attack, perhaps most notably from Rep. Billy Spivey, R-Lewisburg, himself a member of the committee, who now thinks it should be disbanded. In a conversation last week, Spivey objected, reasonably, to recent commentary in this column that characterized his criticism of the committee as a defense of Durham.

No, Spivey said, he wasn’t defending Durham at all; he only meant that, in hindsight, the process “doesn’t pass the smell test” and has opened the door to a precedent-setting “Pandora’s box” of potential abuse of power. Spivey questions the legal authority of the panel and the apparent open-ended nature of the probe conducted in secrecy, though potentially branching off into violating the privacy of individuals other than Durham.

Spivey, who in contrast to Harwell and Durham is not seeking re-election, declined to criticize the speaker. “I’m not saying there has been an abuse of power or that there will be,” he said, only that the Durham panel raises the potential.

Harwell is dealing with perhaps the biggest leadership challenges she has faced. She has sought to strike some middle ground of action as opposed to inaction, and to defend decisions she would probably have preferred not to make.

If things work out according to plan, she will preside over enactment of a compromise Medicaid expansion in 2017 while Durham fades away — especially if he loses his re-election bid. That could be presented as a credible starting point for a gubernatorial campaign. If things don’t work out according to the Harwell vision, it could be the stopping point for a gifted woman long viewed as a rising Tennessee political star.