Tennessee House Republican Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton nominated by GOP lawmakers to be next speaker

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 - Tennessee House Republican Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton has become GOP lawmakers' nominee to replace departing Speaker Glen Casada, who plans to resign next week amid a swirl of controversy and scandal.

After a four-round battle Wednesday, the 48-year-old Sexton, of Crossville, defeated former Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson, of Clarksville, garnering 41 votes from members of the GOP supermajority.

Sexton's victory came after state Rep. Mike Carter, of Ooltewah, dropped out after a fourth-place tie with Rep. Ryan Williams, of Cookeville, in the second round of voting; Williams also dropped out.

Given Republicans' 73-member supermajority in the 99-representative chamber, Sexton is virtually guaranteed to become speaker on Aug. 23 when they return to vote in a special legislative session called by Republican Gov. Bill Lee.

photo District 29 State Rep. Mike Carter, right, shakes hands with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee during a Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon in March.

It's the chamber's most powerful position, with the speaker presiding over the House as well as calling the shots on naming chairpersons, vice-chairpersons and members of committees as well as administering operations.

Casada is quitting the post after losing the faith of fellow Republicans following revelations of sexually explicit text messages he exchanged with his former chief of staff three years ago, as well as other controversies.

Those issues included Casada's brusque ramrodding of Lee's controversial school voucher bill through the House and allegations that he stepped over the line in offering projects to get the bill through after it initially stalled on a 49-49 vote. Another controversy was Casada's hiring of political operatives as staffers.The staffers were feared by a number of members and staff as the speaker's personal spies.

Asked how he can regain trust in the post, Sexton told reporters following Wednesday's caucus vote that "I think as we move forward we'll move together as a unit and do things that will build our relationships with one another."

During Wednesday's caucus meeting, Sexton told told caucus members that the political operatives "who have left employment here will not coming back if I'm your speaker." He also said some remaining staffers believed to have been involved will "not be here when I am speaker."

The issue, Sexton said in his pitch to GOP colleagues, is "about getting back to the basics and continuing to lead. Vote your district, vote your conscience, have faith and trust in your chairmen and the members of the committees who pass good public policy."

Alluding to another Casada controversy, he pledged, "you will never see a kill-bill list from my office to tell any chairman what to do or not to do."

Earlier, Carter, who in 2016 vied unsuccessfully with Casada for the majority leader post, made his pitch to caucus members.

"The last [election] was one of the worst days of my life," Carter, an attorney and former judge told colleagues. "I never thought I'd be standing here after that last one. I've been told that's political suicide. But there are times when you have to do what your heart tells you to do and not what your advisers tell you."

In April, Carter, a House Ethics Committee member, publicly blasted Casada for what the Ooltewah lawmaker charged was the speaker's behind-the-scenes effort to shape an ethics advisory opinion. The opinion involved Casada's actions over the text messaging controversies involving his top aide, Cade Cothren, and other matters.

"Every member will vote their conscience in their district without influence," Carter pledged. "No more investigations. No more conduct that leads to investigations. No more embarrassments over forcing people to make a decision that violates their conscience or the people that they're here to represent."

After his withdrawal from the contest, Carter said: "The caucus has spoken and I accept their decision" and added he will "do everything within my power to make [Sexton] successful."

photo 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)

Three members of the caucus didn't attend the meeting. Among them was Casada.

If Sexton is elected speaker in August as expected, he will serve for the remainder of the two-year 111th General Assembly.

Speaking with reporters later, Sexton said the caucus is "ready to move forward." He hinted there could be changes on some committees, noting his first "order of business" is to talk to members "about what they have passion in and what committees they'd like to serve on, make sure everybody's in the right place so we can be successful."

Fast facts

› The speaker of the House of Representatives is the presiding officer of the House.› The speaker is elected to a two-year term at the beginning of the first half of each session of the Tennessee General Assembly.› The speaker is second in line for succession to the governorship, after the Speaker of the Senate.› The speaker appoints members to all committees.

He also knocked down one rumor floated during the speaker's race that he would name veteran Republican strategist Chip Saltsman as his chief of staff.

Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, who had weighed running for speaker, said she backed Sexton. Asked why she didn't support Carter, Smith said: "It's not 'why not.' ... I have known Cameron since 1994."

She said she met him "in the trenches" when Sexton was working in support of then-candidate and later U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary's first race. "I was just a grassroots nobody. And we developed a friendship over the course of years."

Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, said had "had a top two and my top pick won."

"I just think he is steady, he's a good face for the caucus," Helton said. "I don't think we're going to be hit with any surprises in the future. He's easy to talk to and he's a good listener. I think being a good listener is very important."

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, declined to say who she supported, saying, "it's very difficult when you have to choose among friends and that's what we were doing today. I'm just glad now that we have a decision made, we have a speaker and I just look forward to our caucus uniting behind him."

She said a "lot of great things" done last legislative session were "overshadowed by all this other activity and all these political things."

After Sexton's nomination, Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini blasted the presumed new speaker, charging Sexton "didn't stand up when Glen Casada was bribing his colleagues or when his staffers were caught fabricating an email to have an activist thrown in jail because Cameron Sexton is in Casada's pocket.

"He's stood by Casada's side and supported him for 7 months while corruption and scandals consumed the state house," she added.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.