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House speaker saga, resignation is top 2019 Tennessee story

December 21, 2019 GMT
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In this May 13, 2019 file photo, Republican House Speaker Glen Casada speaks with reporters at Tennessee's Cordell Hull legislative building in Nashville. Rep. Casada resigned as speaker in August amid multiple scandals, including explicit text messages, after a vote of no confidence from fellow House Republicans. This was one of the top stories in Tennessee in 2019. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise, File)
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In this May 13, 2019 file photo, Republican House Speaker Glen Casada speaks with reporters at Tennessee's Cordell Hull legislative building in Nashville. Rep. Casada resigned as speaker in August amid multiple scandals, including explicit text messages, after a vote of no confidence from fellow House Republicans. This was one of the top stories in Tennessee in 2019. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The top story this year in Tennessee was the dramatic fall from power of state Rep. Glen Casada , the former House speaker whose sexually explicit text message exchanges about women and other scandals drove him to resign after only a few months on the job, according to an annual Associated Press survey of reporters, editors and broadcasters.

Casada carved a path to the speakership during a November 2018 vote of House Republicans, a job that eluded him when he ran for it eight years earlier. Casada was installed by the GOP-supermajority Legislature in January. Within five months, the controversy-riddled leader lost his support base and his caucus cast a vote of no confidence in him in May.

Casada resigned as speaker in August over the revelations that he exchanged sexually explicit text messages about women with his former chief of staff, Cade Cothren, years ago. Other controversies kept piling on; among them: Cothren admitted cocaine use at a legislative office years ago; Casada was included in a group text with a racist message from Cothren, but Casada said he never saw it; and claims of vote-buying attempts on a key education voucher bill arose, which he has firmly denied.

In July, Republicans cast their vote to replace Casada with Rep. Cameron Sexton, who ran on “getting back to the basics.” The House formally put him in power during an August special session.

Replacing a speaker in the middle of a term is extremely rare in Tennessee. The last premature speaker resignation came in 1931 in the Senate.

Cothren, the top aide, resigned in May soon after the release of years-old racist texts and the sexually explicit messages, before he was chief of staff.

Casada initially resisted calls from inside his GOP caucus to step down as speaker. However, as the scandals persisted and the caucus voted they no longer had confidence in his leadership, he finally consented.

He even told fellow Republicans in a May conference call that “there’s nothing to come out,” only to see even more lewd text messages leak out.

The drama surrounding text messages aside, Casada’s leadership choices raised some eyebrows. For example, he gave an education subcommittee chairman job to Rep. David Byrd, who has been accused by three women of sexual misconduct three decades ago when he was their high school basketball coach. Byrd eventually resigned the committee leadership post.

It remains to be seen whether Casada will seek reelection to the House in November.

The second place finisher in the 2019 top stories survey was Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher program — a major development in a state that had refused to approve similar vouchers in the past.

The program will divert tax dollars to private education and allow participating families to receive debit cards worth up to $7,300 in state education money each year only for Davidson and Shelby students. The House passed the measure initially by a single vote after Casada refused to accept a 49-49 tie for 40 minutes and was able to switch one vote his way, drawing the vote-buying accusations.

Lee has said he’s pushing to start the program earlier than the 2021-22 deadline in the law. Confusion about the initiative surfaced recently when Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said the vouchers would be considered federally taxable income, only to have her department walk that back days later to say officials aim to ensure the vouchers are considered scholarships not subject to taxation.

Coming in as the third top story this year was Tennessee’s continued pursuit of executions. While the rest of the country largely trends away from the practice, Tennessee put three inmates to death in 2019, and Attorney General Herbert Slatery asked the state Supreme Court for permission to execute another nine people on death row.

Since Tennessee resumed executions in August 2018, four of the six prisoners put to death have chosen the electric chair, a method no other state has used since 2009.

Slatery has also sought to reinstate a death sentence for Abu-Ali Abudur’Rahman, a black man who was resentenced to life in prison in August after raising claims that racism tainted the jury selection process. The state Supreme Court has since stayed his execution date of April 2020.

Another execution next year is scheduled to take place in February.