Is Tennessee ready for a woman governor?

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

For anybody who didn’t get enough politics this fall, here’s an interesting scenario developing on the state scene. Three of the folks who’d like for Bill Haslam to hand them the keys to the governor’s residence when he leaves office in January 2018 are all Republicans, all from Middle Tennessee, all women.

House Speaker Beth Harwell and two members of the state’s congressional delegation – Marsha Blackburn and Diane Black – are prime contenders to succeed Haslam. Despite similarities of party, locality, age, race, marital status and gender, the three couldn’t be more different, say those who know them.

Harwell, 59, the first woman to wield the gavel in the state House, has been a state representative since 1989. She holds a doctorate from Vanderbilt and has taught political science at Belmont. She is an intellectual and a mainstream Republican who has served as state party chair and was a strong supporter of the candidacies of George W. Bush and John McCain as she moved up through the ranks.

As Republicans gained ground, so did Harwell, who has never been shy about exploring her options.LadyGovernorTN

She’s been criticized as indecisive in her handling of a House sexual harassment scandal and has been caught between her party’s Tea Party faction and Haslam’s more traditional approach. She recently survived as Speaker by a too-close-for-comfort 40-30 secret ballot vote, and will be tested often over the next two years.

Black, 65, was elected to Congress in 2011, the year Harwell became Speaker. Before that, she served in the state Senate. She has an impressive back-story – grew up in public housing, became the first member of her family to go to college and is a registered nurse by profession. Her conservative credentials are solid – anti-abortion, pro-gun rights, anti-state income tax – but she brings something different to the mix, a record of work in health care policy, particularly focused on nursing home care.

Black and her husband, David Black, have the additional advantage of being immensely wealthy, which means she could self-fund a gubernatorial campaign. She has won numerous awards from conservative organizations.

If Black is a workhorse, Blackburn, 64, is a show pony.

A Mississippi native, Blackburn faced similar early life adversities as Black, and established herself as a specialist in sales and marketing. Elected to the state Senate in 1998, she came to public attention when she called a talk radio station to rally the troops against a state income tax bill and rode that wave to Washington in 2002, when she was elected to Congress. She’s a frequent flier on Fox News.

Black, who is the least known in East Tennessee, could be the most solid choice for Republican primary voters. Harwell, who is best known locally, could wait too long to make her intentions known. The publicity-seeking Blackburn could overplay her hand.

It will be an interesting year.

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