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David Fowler, with the Constitutional Government Defense Fund, takes notes during a hearing before Judge Mike Pemberton in the courtroom at the Cleveland Municipal Building on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, in Cleveland, Tenn. Fowler, on behalf of Bradley County Commissioner Howard Thompson and Kinser Church of God Pastor Guinn Green, filed a lawsuit to prevent Bradley County from issuing marriage licenses in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriage.

NASHVILLE — Family Action Council of Tennessee President David Fowler is describing as "despicable" a recent direct-mail attack launched by a top state House Republican's PAC against a candidate in a contested state House GOP primary in Hamilton County.

"I don't get involved in Republican primaries, but state Rep. Glen Casada's recent mail piece against Jonathan Mason is despicable!" wrote Fowler, a former state senator from Signal Mountain, in a posting on Mason's campaign Facebook page over the weekend.

House Majority Leader Casada, R-Franklin, is backing East Ridge City Council member Esther Helton in the open GOP contest to replace retiring state Rep. Marc Gravitt, R-East Ridge, who is seeking to become Hamilton County's next register of deeds.

Acting through his leadership CAS PAC, Casada in late June slammed Mason, who works for Chattanooga-based insurer Unum, in a mailer that charged Mason is "Literally In The Pocket of Big Insurance Companies. His Interests Are Their Interests — Not Yours!"

In his Facebook post, Fowler, a religious conservative, said he's known Mason's parents since college, and added "I know how he was raised and I know his values." He cited Mason's work as a volunteer in successful 2006 efforts by Fowler and others to pass a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Mason "did NOT come to his values after twice voting in Democratic Primaries for Barack Obama as did his opponent," Fowler charged. "Jonathan Mason is no more in the 'hip pocket' of the insurance industry because his profession is in insurance than his opponent, a nurse, is in the 'hip pocket' of the state nurses' association."

Moreover, Fowler wrote, "I really know Jonathan Mason and Glen Casada doesn't. Glen Casada is trying to secure votes for [himself] to become Speaker, and that is what this is all about."

Helton supporters are posting signs in the district saying she did not vote twice for Obama.

Casada said Tuesday in an interview that he was "disappointed" by Fowler's post.

In lawmakers' annual session earlier this year, Casada went to bat for Fowler by initially torpedoing a proposed ban on child marriages. Fowler had feared passage of any marriage statute would impair his legal arguments in state court challenges to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that legalized same-sex marriage and voided the state's constitutional ban.

Changes were eventually made in language to the proposed child-marriage ban to alleviate Fowler's concerns and the legislation passed and is now law.

"David and I obviously have differences of opinions," Casada said of Fowler's Facebook post. "And David felt like his opinion was a fact. And I was disappointed he was so critical of someone else's — mine — opinion."

The majority leader praised Helton, saying he met her months ago and was highly impressed.

"She was once a Democrat and is now Republican," Casada said. "She's very articulate as a current leader in the city of East Ridge down there. I just think she's one of the up-and-coming Republicans in the nation."

He cited Helton's "focus on health care-centered, not insurance-centered health care."

Noting that Helton chose as a single mother to bring her child to term, Casada said, "I was really touched by that. She chose to keep the child. You know, a lot of people can talk about being pro-life. But have you walked the walk? She has. All of those things impressed me.

"She kept her son. She could have aborted him. She was a single mother, and she could have. But she chose life. Those are things I respect. That's character right there."

As majority leader, Casada is the second most powerful leader in the House. With current Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, running for governor, Casada is eyeing moving into the top post.

Back in June, Casada told the Times Free Press that he is interested in advancing Republicans, who already enjoy a 75-member-strong super majority in the 99-member chamber, in races across the state.

He said his PAC is involved in defending incumbent Republicans in GOP primaries, as well as the general election, and was engaged in GOP primaries because he's interested in "getting good people elected to the open seats and making sure all of the incumbents come back."

Still, he acknowledged at the time, "I do hope it helps [his speaker bid] because I'm interested in running for speaker. But first things first," meaning his focus is on electing more Republicans.

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

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