NASHVILLE — After becoming Tennessee's new House speaker Friday with no opponent and overwhelming bipartisan support, Republican Cameron Sexton promised representatives a return to normalcy for the often strife-riven GOP-led chamber.
Sexton takes over from a controversial predecessor, fellow Republican Glen Casada, who was driven out of the job by fellow Republicans months after he became speaker. Shortly after he took power, Casada was beset by a series of scandals and pushback from fellow lawmakers over his hard-driving style that ultimately led his own caucus to approve a no-confidence motion.
"My promise as speaker is simple," Sexton said after winning the seat 94-0, with two Democrats abstaining. "We won't always agree on every issue, but I will always make sure that every voice is heard."
Sexton, 48, a Crossville business development executive with a Putnam County-based bank, told the chamber that the "good news is we agree on a lot more than we disagree on. We all want great schools, great jobs, great infrastructure, and great health care. The challenge is — we won't always agree on the pathway to get there, but together we will get there."
He also said he wants to "always encourage robust but respectful debate on the pathway to the shared goals of all Tennesseans. Debate and conversations make us stronger. Respect for those on the opposing side will make us better — in our legislative lives, at home, and in our communities."
And he pledged to work with but preserve the House's independence in dealings with both Republican Gov. Bill Lee and the GOP-led Senate.
Absent from Friday's special session was Casada, who in just four short months managed to become embroiled in a series of controversies, including the disclosure of sexually explicit texts he exchanged with a top aide, as well as his pushing his fellow Republicans hard — sometimes against home-district constituents' wishes — to approve Lee's controversial school voucher bill.
Sexton has said he won't try to force Republicans to vote against their districts.
Democrats, meanwhile, complained that Casada, among other things, ignored their efforts to get recognized on the floor to speak or ordered mics of Democratic speakers shut off when displeased by what they were saying.
In May, two-thirds of the 73-member Republican Caucus voted to say they no longer had confidence in Casada's ability to lead them. After initially balking, Casada soon announced he would step down Aug. 2 following a threat from Lee to call lawmakers into special session.
Two Democrats, Reps. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville and Bo Mitchell, of Nashville, were the only representatives who abstained from voting for Sexton in Friday's vote.
Following the new speaker's election, the chamber quickly moved into partisan mode as Johnson sought to push a resolution to expel Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, a retired school coach accused by three former basketball players of sexually assaulting them in the 1980s.
Knowing her intentions, Sexton nonetheless recognized her and allowed her to speak both on the resolution, which was sent to a standing committee for further examination, as well as Johnson's second effort to expel Byrd on a motion. That failed, as well.
But her mic was never turned off.
Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, who during Casada's tenure had her mic turned off in at least one encounter with Casada, was among Democrats voting for Sexton.
"I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt," she said later. "I think he's going to be even handed."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.