NASHVILLE — Tennessee officials, political strategists and others are advising state House Republicans to exercise care when choosing a new leader to replace embattled Speaker Glen Casada, who announced plans last week to step down after a GOP Caucus no-confidence vote unleashed by a political cyclone of controversy, suspicion and anger.
An ability to restore trust, stability and fairness, observers say, are top qualities for anyone nominated by the Republicans to replace Casada, an action tantamount to election since the 73-member caucus makes up a super majority of the 99-seat chamber.
"I think what's most important is that we have leadership that represents the principles and the values that Tennesseans want and expect," Republican Gov. Bill Lee, a political newcomer, told reporters last week when asked what he would like to see. "That we restore trust, that we have leaders in government that folks trust."
If the GOP Caucus doesn't do that, the consequences could be dire, some warn.
"Because the last thing you need now is to put somebody else in and have questions raised about them," cautioned Tom Ingram, a veteran political strategist who for decades has advised most of Tennessee's successful statewide Republican office seekers.
Ingram said "it needs to be someone who looks and acts the part, as they not only represent the Legislature within the Capitol but as they represent Tennessee outside of the Capitol."
Casada's controversies included lewd text messages exchanged between himself and a then-top aide, Cade Cothren, who boasted about his sexual exploits with women. At the time, Casada, the then-GOP Caucus chairman, responded jokingly or approvingly in three instances, according to texts leaked by a third man in the text chain, described by Casada as a "disgruntled" former GOP consultant.
In January, Cothren became Speaker Casada's chief of staff. He's now part of an independently appointed state prosecutor's look into allegations the aide sent an altered email to the Davidson County district attorney's office that the aide said showed a black civil rights activist had violated a judge's order that he not contact Casada.
Cothren has said it was an innocent mistake. The activist and his attorney allege it was an attempted frame-up job.
Other controversies include what actions Casada may have taken in order to break a 40-minute, 49-49 House floor tie on Lee's Education Savings Accounts school voucher-like bill. The bill eventually passed after one Republican switched his vote from no to yes. A Nashville television station reported it appears to have triggered at least a preliminary inquiry by the FBI.
And that's not including yet another wave of paranoia that raced through the House with some Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike in fear, anger or both about two political operatives on the House payroll that they say were playing "hall monitor" and watching members.
* Leadership styles and an "animal" House?
House Speaker Pro Tempore Bill Dunn, a veteran Knoxville Republican, one of a number of GOP lawmakers either running or weighing a bid to succeed Casada, recently described the speaker to The Tennessean as a "political animal."
Former Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who had been expected to vie with Casada for the House speaker nomination left open by a departing Speaker Beth Harwell. But he resigned his House seat last year. He said he thought one of Casada's issues was too "much focus on the political side and maybe not enough on the general leadership and policy side was a real negative to him.
"It was just every day to get up and think politically," McCormick said. He quickly added that he would tell Casada that personally if he had the "chance to talk with him. He knows it."
Casada's style of leadership has been described by others as transactional in nature, where leaders push compliance through rewards and punishments. It's seen as successful in the short term.
One longtime state Capitol hand, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, likened Casada to the late Speaker Jim McKinney, a Nashville Democrat who served a single term in charge of the chamber from 1971 to 1973. McKinney was defeated in his Democratic Caucus bid for renomination in December 1973 by a younger upstart.
McKinney "operated in exactly in the same way. It was totally by intimidation."
The younger upstart who defeated McKinney was a third-term lawmaker by the name of Ned McWherter, who after a successful tenure as speaker was elected Tennessee governor in 1986, serving two terms.
"The ideal position to be in as a speaker is one where the members like you and fear you both," the observer said. "And that's pretty hard to do." For example, he said, Harwell "was liked but not feared. And Casada is feared but not liked. He has from what I can tell no reservoir of good will. So when he really got into a tight spot there were relatively few people [who] were willing to come to his defense."
Forty-five Republicans voted last week to say they had no confidence in Casada, while just 24 said he still retained their confidence.
The list of other successful speakers cited include McWherter; former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey; the Senate speaker, current Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who succeeded him; longtime former Lt. Gov. John Wilder, a Democrat; and former Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh.
Ingram said respect is key and not letting partisan concerns block the state's advancement. For example, he noted, McWherter said publicly after Republican Lamar Alexander was elected governor in 1978 that he was "going to do everything I can to help him be successful because if he's successful, Tennessee's successful. That's the spirit a legislative leader ought to have."
"They were strong people who knew who they were and they were about as much about policy and the good of the state as they were about politics. And they were able to separate the two," Ingram said.
But it's "not an easy balance, and I don't think in today's politics, it's not where people necessarily go first there."
If he were serving in the GOP Caucus, Ingram said, "I'd be looking for the smartest, brightest, most respected member of the caucus who has that balance of strength and leverage and fairness. And who can deliver all three effectively and in a way that people would respect him or her doing it."
* House GOP's first modern scandal and 2020 elections
How Casada's woes play out in 2020 elections remains to be seen. Tennessee Republicans have controlled the House only twice after post-Civil War Reconstruction, the first from 1969 to 1971 and the latter starting again in 2011 when Harwell was elected speaker.
"It's been a trying couple of weeks for Republicans, but this is an aberration that we dealt with quickly," said Gregory Gleaves, a Republican political consultant. "And now everybody's regrouping and we have a lot of great leaders in the House to move us forward."
Noting "there's a lot of time now between now and November 2020," Gleaves said, "I think we'll be ready. So I don't think it will have a huge impact on the elections 16 months from now. I think it's a good opportunity to turn over a new page. And we've got a lot of good leaders."
Kent Syler, a Middle Tennessee State University political science professor and onetime chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, a Democrat, said he sees any potential general election effect in urban and possibly suburban Democratic-trending district races.
As for potential GOP primary races against incumbents, Syler said many of Casada's woes may be seen as "inside baseball," particularly if the next year plays out without problems.
Ingram noted that Democrats survived scandals such as Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton's pardons- and liquor license-selling scandals that drove him out of office early, as well as the late 1980s FBI's Rocky Top charitable bingo and horse racing bribery scandal which hit the legislature and secretary of state's office.
But the FBI's Tennessee Waltz investigation, which involved agents offering bribes on a bill, primarily caught up Democratic lawmakers and had an impact.
Ingram cautioned that "if the caucus picks someone who doesn't meet all those standards it could bleed over to the party in general and have a negative impact on the party in general.
"I mean, we've seen that too," he said.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.