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VOL. 43 | NO. 24 | Friday, June 14, 2019

Legislators want Casada gone, so why the wait?

By Kathy Carlson

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Are we there yet? Not exactly, as the question relates to Williamson County Republican Rep. Glen Casada’s resignation as Tennessee House Speaker.

For the record, Casada has resigned the speakership, effective at 8 a.m. Friday, Aug. 2 – the day after Metro Nashville votes for a mayor, vice mayor and Metro Council members. When he announced the Aug. 2 exit date, Casada also asked Gov. Bill Lee to hold a special session of the legislature that same day for lawmakers to choose a new speaker.

Members of the 73-member House Republican caucus aren’t happy with Casada’s Aug. 2 exit date, says Rep. Cameron Sexton of Crossville, chair of the party’s House GOP Caucus. That’s echoed by fellow Republican Rep. Jeremy Faison of Cosby, who says a majority of the caucus thinks Casada should formally step down before that date.

“I want this behind us,” Faison says. “The longer this drags on, the more food for (speculation). I see no good coming out of dragging out the process.

“If it was up to me, there would be a special session in June.”

Casada’s preference for an Aug. 2 special session shouldn’t carry any special weight, Faison says. “He’s less than a lame duck as far as being speaker is concerned.”

Deputy House Speaker Matthew Hill, of Jonesborough, adds he’d prefer to hold any special session at the end of June.

“I think the House is ready to move on. Let’s do it” sooner rather than later, he says. Hill, named deputy speaker by Casada in January, is one of several Republican lawmakers who plan to run to succeed Casada.

The lawmakers’ comments were in keeping with a recent statewide Vanderbilt University poll in which 63% of about 1,000 respondents – across all party lines – say Casada should resign following the revelation of sexually explicit text messages he exchanged with his chief of staff. (The telephone poll was conducted from May 9-23 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8%.)

Efforts to reach Casada were unsuccessful.

“Now that the Speaker has announced his intended timeline, we will continue to be in close communication with House leadership and members to determine the best outcome for the House and for Tennessee,” Lee said last week.

So, a special session Aug. 2 or sooner remains on the table, along with the possibility of no special session.

At this point, some might ask what difference does it make whether or when there’s a special session? The legislature isn’t in session until January, and the rules provide for the House Speaker Pro Tem, currently Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, to step in as speaker until a new speaker is formally chosen.

As several Republicans see it, choosing a new speaker well before next January would help the party put the controversy over Casada to rest and allow it to build trust in new leadership.

Casada, a Williamson County Republican, has served in the House since 2001. He was elected as speaker in 2018 and began serving in January 2019. Colleagues and lobbyists praised him for running an efficient and productive first session of the 111th General Assembly. But some lawmakers chafed under Casada’s top-down leadership, with Democrats saying they were shut out of legislative processes.

Soon after the legislature adjourned, news reports surfaced of sexually explicit and racially derogatory text messages from a Casada staffer to the speaker. The staffer resigned, but additional and unrelated revelations have followed, and May 20, House Republicans delivered a 45-24 vote of no confidence in Casada’s leadership. Casada announced May 21 that he would resign at a time to be announced when he returned from a vacation June 3. On June 4, he gave an effective resignation date of Aug. 2 to House leadership. House leaders had asked him in a meeting that day to resign earlier, but he refused.

The Tennessee Constitution stipulates the governor can call a special session, or the speakers of both the Senate and House must call one “at the written request of two-thirds of the members of each House.” That would be 66 House members and 22 Senate members. If all 26 House Democrats and 40 of the 45 Republicans who voted no confidence in Casada joined forces, there would be the required 66 members.

Interestingly, the May 20 no-confidence vote roughly reversed the 47-26 vote by which the caucus chose Casada for the speakership in November, as reported by The Associated Press.

It’s technically possible that Casada could still run for speaker, either in a special session or even next January. Hill notes there was “zero likelihood” that Casada would run for speaker in a special session. Casada has made it very clear to House leaders that he will resign and the leaders agree with that, Hill says.

Faison, Sexton and Hill talked about how the House could change under a new speaker.

Sexton says the House could examine and possibly change how members are appointed to the House ethics committee. It also could examine the possibility of the House requiring random drug tests, as many employers do.

Faison says he wants to make sure the state House of Representatives belongs to the people. Under Casada’s predecessor, Nashville Republican Beth Harwell, lawmakers were encouraged to vote their district and their conscience.

The man or woman who becomes the next speaker must be committed to keeping that the people’s house, Faison points out. Voters matter; to silence a House member is to prevent the voices of the 70,000 people he or she represents from being heard, he said.

Hill acknowledges he wants to make sure going forward that every House member’s voice has been heard. “I believe that everyone, Republican or Democrat, who wants to be included should be,” he says.

If he is speaker, he will listen to fellow lawmakers and give them breathing room to represent constituents, without arm-twisting or cajoling. If lawmakers tell him, as speaker, that they need to vote a certain way, they should be able to do so without fear of reprisal, Hill adds.

If chosen speaker, Hill said he won’t hold any committee chairmanships open for Casada. Hill will continue the same number of committees with current leadership, adding that lawmakers he has contacted say the expanded committee system that Casada implemented has worked well.

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