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Tennessee House GOP nominates new speaker after scandal

July 24, 2019
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State Rep. Cameron Sexton, right, is congratulated after winning the Republican nomination as Speaker of the House during a Republican Caucus meeting in the Old Supreme Court Chambers on the first floor of the Capitol, Wednesday, July 24, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (Larry McCormack/The Tennessean via AP)
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State Rep. Cameron Sexton, right, is congratulated after winning the Republican nomination as Speaker of the House during a Republican Caucus meeting in the Old Supreme Court Chambers on the first floor of the Capitol, Wednesday, July 24, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (Larry McCormack/The Tennessean via AP)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee House Republicans nominated a new leader Wednesday as part of their latest attempt to calm the mounting controversies surrounding the GOP-controlled chamber, which has been plagued by scandals involving its outgoing speaker.

After multiple rounds of voting at the state Capitol, Rep. Cameron Sexton finally secured 41 votes to replace Speaker Glen Casada out of the 70-member voting body. The rest of the candidates who vied for Casada’s post included Reps. Ryan Williams, Jay Reedy, Curtis Johnson, Mike Carter and Matthew Hill.

“I can assure you, we will continue to lead,” Sexton, the 48-year-old from Crossville, told members right before the voting began. “This election is about getting back to the basics and continuing to lead.”

Casada — who was notably absent from Wednesday’s meeting — is scheduled to resign as speaker Aug. 2, just eight months after taking over the top leadership position that was supposed to last two years. Casada has faced resignation calls since it was revealed that he exchanged text messages containing sexually explicit language about women with his former chief of staff several years ago, among other controversies.

Yet Casada’s presence was still felt in the crowded room where House Republicans huddled to vote and nominate a new speaker. Multiple candidates vowed they would spark an investigation or be an embarrassment to the caucus.

Sexton promised to stray from Casada’s strict leadership style by stating he would never have a so-called “kill list” or otherwise known as a list of bills that Casada identified this year to block from progressing.

Although House Republicans have nominated a new leader, Sexton still needs to be officially voted in as speaker by the General Assembly. That will take place Aug. 23 during a special legislative session expected to take just one day.

Bylaws require the House Republicans to support their caucus’ nominee during the formal vote in August. This means Sexton’s trajectory to become Tennessee’s next House speaker is all but certain. Sexton is currently the House GOP’s caucus chairman.

Switching speakers prematurely is an unprecedented action in Tennessee’s modern political era, with the last premature speaker resignation came in 1931 in the Senate. Casada voluntarily agreed to step aside as speaker after the GOP House caucus voted they no longer had confidence in his leadership in May. The state’s top Republican leaders, including Gov. Bill Lee and Senate Speaker Randy McNally, also urged Casada to give up his leadership post.

Lee and McNally were among the Republicans offering Sexton congratulations on his nomination.

“Today’s election marks a new beginning for the House and the entire General Assembly,” McNally said in a statement. “I look forward to working with Cameron Sexton to build upon our success as a majority and secure a better future for the people of Tennessee.”

Sexton promised Republican members Wednesday that he would not hire the same contentious staff members who resigned amid Casada’s scandals.

That included Cade Cothren, Casada’s former chief of staff who admitted in May to exchanging text messages with Casada containing sexually explicit language about women several years ago and using cocaine in his legislative office years earlier.

“Those people who have left employment here will not be coming back if I’m your speaker. And there may some who are here now who will not be here when I become speaker,” Sexton said, who later added that he had not decided who presently was working at the Capitol may be out of a job.

Looming in the background of the anticipation of the special session are talks of possibly using the event to expel Rep. David Byrd , a Republican who has been accused by three women of sexual misconduct decades ago.

Byrd has not outright denied the allegations but has said he’s truly sorry if he hurt or emotionally upset any of his students.

Sexton has said he doesn’t believe Byrd should be expelled from the chamber and has not said whether he would call for an investigation into Byrd.

At least one Democratic lawmaker has vowed to bring a resolution to oust Byrd from the House chamber during the special session. However, it’s unclear how successful that attempt will be in the Republican-controlled House.

“As we move forward, we’ll see what happens. The good news is we have four weeks and so we can look at what may or may not be filed at this point and make a decision on how to handle that,” he said.

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