As we’re getting off the phone, Rep. Diana Harshbarger says that, if we just had a little more time to chat, she’d tell me the hilarious story of what happened when her water broke in pharmacy class.
That’s Diana Harshbarger, refreshingly down to earth. She represents Tennessee’s 1st congressional district, and is clearly making good on her promise to bring the values of rural and small-town Tennessee to the marble halls of Washington. She is the kind of woman who talks unselfconsciously about having been “saved” and doesn’t hesitate to sport a necklace that spells out the word “freedom.”
Diana Harshbarger, a young 61, has a soft Tennessee accent and dark, shoulder-length hair. She was a pharmacist who had never run for public office when she received a call from her pastor’s wife (who is also Diana’s financial adviser). “She called me and said ‘Diana, you would be perfect for this’,” when it was announced that longtime incumbent Dr. Phil Roe would not run again. “That call was the catalyst for me. I love this country. I have a son and two grandsons, and this is the deal: I see what is happening to our country, and that we are losing our freedoms one by one.”
When Harshbarger later showed her “freedom” necklace to her pastor’s wife, the two women got chill bumps, according to Diana, and her friend repeated the request that Diana run for Congress.
So prompted, Harshbarger threw her hat in the ring. Her northeastern Tennessee district has been described as “ancestrally Republican,” (this was a trend established in the Civil War when many district leaders were cold to the Confederacy) and the odds were that a Republican would be elected in 2020. But which one? The GOP primary attracted no fewer than 16 hopefuls. Diana came in first and went on to defeat the Democrat in the general election. She believes she won by just being herself.
“My strategy was to be myself,” she says. “I had cared for people for more than 30 years on a local level and why would I not continue to do that on a federal level? And that’s what won people over, I do believe. They saw that it’s not about your institutional knowledge. It’s about how do I care for people every day? And a lot of them knew me. A lot of them who didn’t know me, I answered their questions. I spent time with them, and that resonates. What mattered was that I said, ‘I’m fighting for our family, our faith, and our freedom.’ And that’s what caused them to vote for me.”
As for winning, she says, “I am an outsider and a business owner, a mother, and a grandmother, and I taught Sunday school for 24 years, and people chose me to represent them and their values, and that’s sweet.”
Harshbarger was born in Kingsport, Tennessee and grew up in the nearby town of Bloomingdale. “We didn’t have a lot of extra money,” Diana recalls. “We had what we needed, but there were no frills. The first house we lived in when I was born didn’t have a bathroom. You either had to use the pot in the closet or go outside. Some people don’t believe that, but it was true.
“My mom and dad both worked, and my dad would work two and three jobs,” Harshbarger recalls. “He had an eighth-grade education, my mother had a tenth-grade education, so I was the first one in my immediate family to graduate from high school, and the first one in my family to graduate from college, and then go on and get a Doctorate of Pharmacy.” Diana’s parents urged her to seek a job at Eastman Chemical, one of the big employers in the region.
“My parents wanted me to get a job in the secretarial pool,” she says. “I had two years of short hand and two years of typing, and I was ready. But it’s one of those situations when something nags at you. I wanted something else. It wasn’t that they didn’t encourage me. They just didn’t have the money to help me pursue things that I could only dream of. Back then people had big families and the kids graduated from high school and the biggest thing was to get a job. And a lot of people went to Eastman to work. I didn’t want to disappoint or hurt anybody, but I wanted to do something else.”
Immediately after high school, Harshbarger got a job at a store called World of Clothing, where she earned minimum wage and saved for college and a car. She was once asked by a reporter what she liked about that job. “Frankly,” she replied, “getting a paycheck to help pay for school. It was a great chance for me to learn how to manage money. We never had money growing up, so it was a big deal for me to have spending money and to learn how to save for school and a vehicle.” Diana was attending East Tennessee State University.
She met Robert Harshbarger, who was working at a Giant, through a mutual friend and they started dating. He graduated from East Tennessee State University with a B.S. in chemistry and an ambition to be a pharmacist. Shortly after they were married, they moved to Atlanta so that Robert could study at Mercer University’s College of Pharmacy. “We must have looked like the Beverly Hillbillies driving down the road to Atlanta,” Diana says, laughing. They had homemade furniture—her father had made the coffee table—but Diana looks back fondly on the period. She was working at Kroger and he was working shifts in a hospital.
“My husband had a little tape recorder,” Diana remembers. “He would tape all the notes during the day at his classes. He’d drop it up to me because I get off work at five. He’d go into work at the hospital and what I would do was type his notes up on a typewriter at the end of the day. And I kept doing that for weeks and weeks and months and months, and I started thinking, ‘I could do this.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you go try to interview with the admissions director?’ And I did. And he said, ‘Diana, I like you.’” She was told to complete prerequisite undergraduate courses and come back, which she did. She became pregnant with the couple’s only child, a son, but continued her studies full-time.
She graduated from pharmacy school in 1986—he graduated the year before. The couple returned to Tennessee, where Diana landed a job as a pharmacist at an Eckerd’s and Bob worked at Bristol Memorial Hospital. “We worked, and we worked, and we worked to save money, because his dream was always to open his own pharmacy,” says Diana. “We did finally buy a house. They wanted a lot more money for it than we were willing to offer. So, we underbid and I’m glad because they took the offer. And that showed me right there, you can negotiate on anything in life and come out better.”
After a few years of working and saving, the Harshbargers were able to buy a Medicine Shoppe pharmacy franchise. “When you own a business,” Diana says, “it’s not 9 to 6. You are there before it opens. You are there until the work is done. Initially, it was just a regular pharmacy, but then we got into compounding. Honestly, my husband introduced compounding to the rest of the Medicine Shoppe franchise. It was remarkable.” A compounding pharmacy is one that prepares medicines to meet a particular need. They require prescriptions, just like any other pharmacy. The Pharmacy Compounding Accreditation Board sets national standards.
“We must have looked like the Beverly Hillbillies driving down the road to Atlanta,” Diana says, laughing.
The Harshbargers own Premier Pharmacy in Kingsport, which specializes in compounding. “We only cater to those people for whom nothing else works and they can’t get it anywhere else,” she says. “And we have a valid prescription. Big Pharma doesn’t like it because we don’t have to go through that investigational drug application and things of that nature to get to that final product. But that’s neither here nor there. But the thing is who better than a compounding pharmacist to come in and educate other members on what my profession does? And that’s all I can do for my profession is to go educate members to make them aware of what’s happening and how many people we service, and there is a valid spot for us.”
Before she entered politics, educating people on compounding pharmacies included coming to Washington to lobby lawmakers as part of the efforts of the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists, which strives to promote access to compounding pharmacies. Diana Harshbarger was on the board of the IACP. “We’d fly up to Washington two or three times a year to lobby our congressmen and senators about our profession,” she says. “We found that sometimes they’d shake their heads ‘yes’ and really mean ‘no.’” The IACP did succeed in getting legislation to help compounding pharmacies introduced.
Harshbarger campaigned on a conservative agenda that included protecting religious liberty, reducing taxes, health care issues, and national security. She believes that her business experience helps her understand what is wrong with big-spending Washington. “In a business,” says Rep. Harshbarger, “you live on a budget, as a family you live on a budget, and the government should live on a budget. There should be a balanced budget amendment, and we need to create a plan to get us out of debt in a certain period of time, and it should be a hard stop for that. People, families, don’t print money if we don’t have it. We get another job and work harder.
“We should be getting rid of government programs that are not effective. One thing I even tell my staff, ‘You better be able to evaluate these programs. If you can’t measure it, it’s not worth doing.’ And that’s the only way you can measure success in a business, and it’s the only way you can measure success in anything you do. These people are just – well, it’s the most blatant waste of money and time that I’ve ever seen so far. I’ve only been here a short time, but that’s my take.”
It’s also the take of many taxpayers who are increasingly seeing the effects of government’s latest round of spending money it doesn’t have—we believe that budget cutters like Diana Harshbarger are just exactly the right prescription.