NASHVILLE — As calls for the Tennessee House speaker’s resignation intensify amid a scandal involving racist and sexually explicit texts, the GOP-dominant statehouse once again finds itself grappling with a culture that some say is harmful to women and people of colour.
The turmoil — just three years after the General Assembly endured a sex scandal that ended with the expulsion of a lawmaker — has revived concerns about statehouse leaders’ ability to provide a respectful working environment, not only for lawmakers, but also for staffers, interns and lobbyists.
It also has refocused attention on recent legislative action that critics say not only disrespects women but is inherently racist.
Ongoing pleas from black activists to remove a bust of Confederate cavalry general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Tennessee Capitol lobby have gone unheeded by white statehouse leaders.
And after advocacy groups stepped up attempts to register more black voters during the 2018 election, lawmakers passed a bill that will fine and potentially jail voter registration workers who don’t follow new rules. Critics say the measure targets groups that are trying to register black voters, many of whom tend to lean Democratic.
“We have to elect leadership that respects women and communities of colour, who have the fortitude to take action,” said Tennessee Democratic Chair Mary Mancini. “Right now we don’t have that.”
The General Assembly has taken steps in the past to address sexual misconduct. In 2016, when the Capitol was rocked by the sex scandal involving Durham, then-House Speaker Beth Harwell spearheaded an overhaul of the legislature’s sexual harassment policy. During her unsuccessful run for governor, she also cited her efforts to expel Durham and his “victimizing women in the workplace.” Leading lawmakers said removing the key offender from their midst would resolve the problem.
Yet just two years later, news outlets reported that three women had accused Republican Rep. David Byrd of sexual misconduct when he was their high school basketball coach several decades ago. Two women alleged Byrd inappropriately touched them. The third said Byrd tried to. Byrd has not outright denied the allegations, but has said he’s truly sorry if he hurt or emotionally upset any of his students. He did not step down; in fact, he was reelected.
Earlier this month, as lawmakers were winding up the 2019 legislative session, reports emerged that House Speaker Glen Casada and his former chief of staff had exchanged text messages containing sexually explicit references to women — an indication, critics said, that a toxic environment persists in the General Assembly.
Lawmakers in both parties say the scandals have tainted their views on public service.
“With all the vitriol playing out before our eyes … I find myself thinking that if this is what public service has come to then I may want to serve the community that I love in another way,” said Assistant Majority Leader Ron Gant, a Republican from Williston.
At least 10 Republican House members have said Casada should step aside. In a further sign of eroding trust, Democratic lawmakers have also asked law enforcement to explore allegations that Casada’s office spied on House members, charges he denies.
First-time Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, has stopped short of calling for Casada’s resignation, but said he is “concerned … that we have the kind of environment that is professional and that respects all people.”
The latest scandal erupted when a news outlet reported that Casada’s chief of staff, Cade Cothren, may have tampered with emails to make it look like a black student activist violated bond conditions after he was arrested for participating in protests at the Tennessee Capitol. The same report revealed Cothren had used racist language in text messages years earlier, including at least one the speaker received.
“It pained me,” Casada eventually told reporters. “It was like a punch to the gut when I saw that come out.”
Both Casada and Cothren denied evidence-tampering accusations, and despite the Democrats’ appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate, appeared to have weathered the storm. That all changed when the sexually explicit text exchanges were leaked to news outlets a few days later.
Although Cothren resigned, Casada played down the lewd text messages about women as “locker room talk” — invoking the same language then-presidential candidate Donald Trump used when video surfaced of him boasting that fame enabled him to grope women.
Casada has since apologized, insisted that he’s changed and released a four-part action plan to help rebuild trust inside the chamber.
It remains to be seen whether that pledge will translate into substantive changes in the legislature’s current culture.