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File Photo / Tres Wittum, then a 24-year-old Republican weighing entering the 3rd Congressional District's 2012 GOP primary, is shown in this staff file photo. Wittum is candidate in this year's 5th Congressional District GOP primary.

NASHVILLE — A candidate running in Tennessee's 5th Congressional District GOP primary was escorted out of the state Republican Party's annual fundraiser over the weekend after an outburst directed at state House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the state Senate speaker, as both leaders came on stage.

Tres Wittum was a longtime aide to state Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson. Wittum had been on leave after formally announcing his candidacy in April. At the fundraiser, he was said to have been berating Sexton, McNally and others, according to an account in The Tennessee Journal.

"Mr. Wittum's actions were out of character with the person we have interacted with in the past," Sexton, of Crossville, later said in a statement. "I think Mr. Wittum had a bad week and compounded it at the Statesmen's Dinner. Hopefully, it was just a one-time incident that he regrets, and we can all move past it."

Wittum was quickly escorted out of the Nashville Music City Center ballroom by state Sen. John Stevens, of Huntingdon, following the incident, multiple witnesses later told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The candidate, who once lived in Cleveland, Tennessee, and is a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate, said Monday afternoon in a text to the Times Free Press that "last weekend Republicans from all over Tennessee came together to celebrate the accomplishments of our party.

"Like President Trump, I can be very vocal against the establishment swamp — even in our own party. Our state and country are run by the political establishment. I'll stand up to my party. I'll always stand up to the left. But in the end I will always stand up for hard-working Tennesseans and I'll never back down."

Prior to the incident, Wittum was critical of McNally, of Oak Ridge, and Sexton while speaking to a Times Free Press reporter at the event. He also said would not be returning to Watson's office after his period of leave. The reporter left the event prior to McNally and Sexton taking the stage and was not present at the subsequent outburst.

Wittum began working for Watson in 2011. Watson said in a brief text to the Times Free Press on Monday that he doesn't comment on Senate personnel matters.

Connie Ridley, director of Legislative Administration, said in a Monday phone interview regarding Wittum that "the decision not to return after his leave of absence was discussed with him" in late July.

"I can't speak to the circumstances of the weekend, I don't know anything about that. But what I can tell you is that that discussion was had in late July, so (Wittum) was already aware of that. He won't return after his approved leave of absence."

Wittum took a leave of absence in April as he formally announced his candidacy in the 5th Congressional District, which includes a portion of Davidson and all of Williamson County. Wittum has lagged in fundraising in the contest where rivals and independent expenditure groups have poured in huge sums for television advertising, direct mail and other outreach.

In 2012, Wittum briefly weighed a bid in the GOP's 3rd Congressional District primary but ultimately did not run.

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

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