NASHVILLE — Cameron Sexton says he's always been interested in politics and government, but it wasn't until he worked in Republican Randy McNally's 1994 Tennessee Senate campaign that he "kind of fell in love with it.
"It was a lot like playing sports growing up," recalled Sexton, now 48, who on Friday was elected speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. "Very competitive."
Then 24 and a recent University of Tennessee graduate with a B.A. degree in science and a concentration in public administration, Sexton stayed with politics for a while, later working for then-Republican U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, who represented Tennessee's 4th Congressional District.
Sexton, the son of school teachers who grew up in Knoxville and Oak Ridge, later worked in a series of jobs. And while living in Crossville, he launched his own political bid, running for mayor in 2008 against a Crossville native with extensive ties.
He lost, narrowly, by 60 or so votes, Sexton said, wryly noting, "I learned that nursing homes play a big role on election day."
Four years later, Sexton challenged an incumbent Republican representative in the state House District 25 primary and won. Soon afterward he was elected by colleagues as House Republican whip.
Two years later, Sexton was defeated for the position. He served a stint as House Health Committee chairman and in 2018 was elected Republican Caucus chairman.
This year, new House Republican Speaker Glen Casada ran into a political buzzsaw of controversy that led to GOP colleagues voting to say they no longer had confidence in him in May and Casada resigning his post Aug. 2. Sexton joined the four-person race to succeed him, winning the GOP nomination in May, tantamount to election on the floor, since Republicans have 73 members in the 99-seat chamber.
Sexton was elected Friday without opposition, receiving 94 votes. Only two Democrats abstained.
Asked to sum up where he stands on the GOP political spectrum in a recent interview, Sexton said, "I think I'm a pragmatic conservative, maybe common-sense conservative. I don't boil it down much more than that."
And as to how he interprets that, Sexton said he sees it as meaning "thoughtful and deliberate."
His goal as speaker, Sexton said, "is to have consistency and stability, which means you have to be fair and consistent."
A number of Democrats, including Minority Leader Karen Camper of Memphis, say they're willing to give him a chance, at least for now. The 99-member chamber has just 26 Democrats.
Now Senate speaker and lieutenant governor, Randy McNally said Sexton was a "lot of help" in his 1994 campaign, which followed his cooperation with the FBI in exposing corruption in the Tennessee Legislature.
"He was very good about managing the campaign, choosing what to run in ads and things. He was good with people, too, making sure we had a good grassroots effort," McNally said.
He said he and Sexton "won't always agree, but I think we'll always get along."
State Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, and former Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chip Saltsman are Sexton fans, having met him through GOP circles in the mid-1990s.
"I think Speaker Sexton's going to do a fantastic job," said Smith, a former Tennessee Republican Party chairman. "His temperament is one that's very business oriented. He's going to be very focused on the issues, and I think you can already tell, he's going to give everyone an opportunity to speak on procedural matters."
Saltsman likewise first met Sexton on the 1994 campaign trail.
"He's got that perfect mix of politics and policy," Saltsman said. "His temperament is right. He's probably on the front side a little more interested in policy. And I think you saw from his remarks, he wants to work with both sides.
"And like he said, what makes us good is through conversation and debate, and what makes us better is respect from the other side," Saltsman said. "I think that's a very good place to start from."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.