Questions remain as Tennessee speaker promises to resign

In this Jan. 8, 2019 file photo, House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, bangs the gavel on the opening day of the 111th General Assembly Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee lawmakers are set to tussle for months over the state’s criminal justice and education systems, sports betting and medical marijuana, and hot-button topics ranging from guns to abortion. The Republican-supermajority General Assembly is finally digging into its workload after new Republican Gov. Bill Lee has taken office and begun getting acclimated. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With Tennessee’s Republican House Speaker Glen Casada promising to resign from his leadership position Tuesday, looming questions still remain about the unprecedented announcement sparked by weeks of an ongoing political scandal inside the GOP-dominant Statehouse.

Primarily, it’s unknown when exactly Casada will meet with legislative leaders to finalize his last day in the top House position. But it’s also unclear who will replace him to lead the House — which currently has a Republican supermajority — and how the process will take place.

“When I return to town on June 3, I will meet with caucus leadership to determine the best date for me to resign as speaker so that I can help facilitate a smooth transition,” Casada said in a statement.

Gov. Bill Lee had previously issued a stern warning that he would call a special legislative session following a 45-24 secret ballot vote from Casada’s GOP caucus declaring members no longer had confidence in Casada’s ability to lead.

“Speaker Casada has made the right decision, and I look forward to working with the legislature to get back to conducting the people’s business and focusing on the issues that matter most to our state,” Lee, who was newly elected as governor in November, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Casada has been dogged by calls to resign since it was revealed he exchanged text messages containing sexually explicit language about women with his former chief of staff several years ago, among other controversies.

Rep. Patsy Hazelwood, a Republican from Signal Mountain, was one of the first GOP members to support Casada stepping aside as a speaker. She has said that Casada’s resignation is a “good first step.”

“As a caucus, we need to take whatever additional steps are necessary to root out this type of behavior and to make sure there is zero tolerance for demeaning and denigration of any gender or ethnicity in the people’s House,” she said in her statement.

Just seven of the House’s 73 Republicans are women.

As of Tuesday, lawmakers were still determining if Lee would have to call them back to the Statehouse to replace Casada or wait until January when the General Assembly is scheduled to be back in town.

That’s because the move to remove a House speaker is largely unprecedented in Tennessee’s modern political era. The last Senate speaker resignation came in 1931. And in 1893, a House speaker declined to resign and his office was declared vacant, according to legislative librarian Eddie Weeks.

Speaker Pro Tempore Bill Dunn — who would immediately take over the top seat in the interim — told news outlets he was “willing” to serve as House speaker should the body elect him. However, a handful of leading lawmakers are expected to also angle for the top seat over the next few weeks.

Separately, GOP Rep. Mike Carter, who originally raised concerns about Casada’s ethics panel involvement , told the Chattanooga Times Free Press he was asking staffers to prepare a petition calling for a full removal of Casada from office.

Monday’s resignation announcement marked a quick, turbulent downfall for the Franklin lawmaker who has spent only a few months in the House’s top position.

Casada stepped into his role as speaker in January. Bouncing back from a failed bid for speaker more than eight years beforehand, he received 47 secret ballot votes out of 73 Republicans in the 99-member chamber to become speaker-elect in November. Then as the majority leader, he defeated Reps. Curtis Johnson of Clarksville and David Hawk of Greeneville.

Casada built up political capital by spending heavily on Republican candidates in contests during the November election, including contested primaries for open Republican seats. He also backed Republican Rep. David Byrd, whom three women have accused of sexual misconduct when he was their high school basketball coach several decades ago.

Casada released digital ads last election comparing the scrutiny Byrd was under to that given to U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and President Donald Trump.

Byrd was then among more than 40 Republicans whom Casada rewarded with chairmanships of the committee and subcommittee system he expanded. Casada removed Byrd from the post near the end of the last legislative session after protesters showed up at his education subcommittee’s meeting for months.

His political support began to waver when his former chief of staff, Cade Cothren, was pressured into resigning after the release of years-old racist texts and the sexually explicit messages, and Cothren’s admission that he used cocaine in his legislative office years before becoming Casada’s top aide. Casada was included in one of the group texts with a racist message, but has said he never saw it.

Another scandal that sparked early doubts was the report of possible evidence tampering by Cothren with a young black activist’s criminal case, which a special prosecutor is still investigating.

Casada denied that tampering allegation and a variety of others that continued to pile up, ranging from accusations that he spied on legislative members to a GOP colleague’s claim that Casada tried to “rig and predetermine” an ethics review regarding his controversies.

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