By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst
May 10, 2019
LT GOVERNOR RANDY MCNALLY ON INSIDE POLITICS AS HOUSE SPEAKER CASADA SCANDAL SCRAMBLES STATE POLITICS; SCANDAL CAUSES HOUSE SPEAKER CHIEF OF STAFF TO STEP DOWN WHILE CALLS RISE FOR SPEAKER CASADA TO RESIGN AS WELL; A NEW CHIEF OF STAFF; THE FBI PROBES THE ESA/VOUCHER VOTE; A LEGISLATIVE ROUNDUP; THE SICK OUT; STATE TESTING FINALLY WENT SMOOTHLY THIS YEAR; PARK IT FOR NOW; METRO CHARTER AMENDMENTS; MLB EXPANSION TEAM IN NASHVILLE; NEW LEASE FOR THE PREDATORS; WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE COMING TO NASHVILLE?; THE FIRST MAYORAL ADS ARE RELEASED;
LT GOVERNOR RANDY MCNALLY ON INSIDE POLITICS AS HOUSE SPEAKER CASADA SCANDAL SCRAMBLES STATE POLITICS
To reflect on the recently concluded first session of the 111th Tennessee General Assembly, and the scandal that has rocked all of Capitol Hill and the state politically this week, Lt. Governor Randy McNally is our guest on INSIDE POLITICS.
What more can I say. As outlined in the reports chronicled below, it has been quite a week concerning the scandal enveloping House Speaker Glen Casada and a now former top staff member. Talking with our Senate Speaker is a most interesting conversation.
SPOILER ALERT: Lt. Governor McNally had been reluctant to comment except in broad terms on the scandal because it’s “a matter for the House to decide.” Now says, and elaborates in our interview, if House Speaker Glen Casada were a member of the Senate, he would call on him to resign.
INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include:
7:00 p.m. Friday;
5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday;
1:30 a.m. & 5:00 a.m. on Sunday.
THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 and on NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2.
One option for those who can’t see the show locally or who are out of town, you can watch it live with streaming video on NEWSCHANNEL5.com. Just use your TiVo or DVR, if those live times don't work for you.
This week’s show and previous INSIDE POLITICS interviews are also posted on the NEWSCHANNEL5 website for your viewing under the NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS section. A link to the show is posted as well on the Facebook page of NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Each new show and link are posted the week after the program airs.
Because of some requests, I will also start posting a link to the show each week on my Facebook page as soon as it is available, usually on Monday or Tuesday).
SCANDAL CAUSES HOUSE SPEAKER CHIEF OF STAFF TO STEP DOWN WHILE CALLS RISE FOR SPEAKER CASADA TO RESIGN AS WELL
Here’s a day by day chronicle of how this scandal emerged and has grown almost daily this past week to dominate Tennessee politics:
THURSDAY MAY 2
This scandal began to unfold on the final day of session (Thursday, May 2). News reports, led by NEWSCHANNEL5 INVESTIGATES and reporter Phil Williams, said Cade Cothren, the Chief of Staff for House Speaker Glen Casada, was accused of trying to frame a civil rights activist who had challenged Republican lawmakers during this year's legislative session. New stories by NEWSCHANNEL5 INVESTIGATES also presented evidence Cothren had sent out racist text messages. Nashville’s District Attorney is now employing a special prosecutor to look into the matter.
From the start, Speaker Casada strongly defended his top aide, saying he had made past mistakes in his life, but had now changed his ways. Casada even implied the evidence against Cothren had been fabricated by the media, in particular NEWSCHANNEL5.
MONDAY MAY 6
By Monday, more allegations emerged. Cothren had bragged in text messages about using cocaine while at work in his office on Capitol Hill. Sexually -explicit text messages involving Cothren surfaced as well. Here is a list of the kind of text messages involved:
soliciting oral sex and naked photos from an intern;
suggesting he would make sexual advances toward another intern;
seeking sex with a lobbyist;
referring to another woman as a “cxxt”; and
calling Metro police officers who gave him parking tickets “rent a cop cxxxsuckers.”
Some of the texts also involved Speaker Casada himself. I t’s a matter that not surprisingly that quickly took this story national and led to Cothren resigning early Monday evening.
For a while on Monday, Speaker Casada had continued to defend his top assistant who he paid a salary of nearly $200,000 a year. But as the allegations and revelations mounted, the Speaker finally said to THE TENNESSEAN: “I need to re-evaluate some things.’’ A few hours later, Cothren resigned, so he wouldn’t be a distraction he said. From a statement Cothren released:
"Republicans in the House and Senate accomplished a plethora of great things this year," he said. "We have a hell of a leadership team in both chambers and in the governor's office, and I couldn't be more proud to have worked with them in 2019."
Cothren said he believed the "best thing for (him) to do is step down" so Tennessee Republicans could stay focused on their work.
Members of the House Republican leadership quickly closed ranks with Casada. In a joint statement, Casada thanked Cothren for his service to the General Assembly.
House Majority Leader William Lamberth said: “I am incredibly shocked and disappointed to learn of these allegations of inappropriate behavior involving the Speaker’s Chief of Staff, Cade Cothren, and I agree with his decision to resign immediately. These allegations are grave and serious; I do not condone these actions, and they will not be tolerated.”
Republican Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton agreed with Cathren's choice to resign, saying “These unforeseen circumstances are unfortunate, and I believe Cade Cothren made the best decision by tendering his resignation as chief of staff. This has been an extremely difficult time for all involved. I appreciate Cade putting Tennessee’s interests first.”
But what about Speaker Casada’s involvement in the sexually-explicit text messages with his aide? Republican House Leaders didn’t speak to that issue in their joint statement on Monday. Politically, that is not surprising, and neither is the reaction of leading House Democrats who were outraged and calling for Casada to resign.
TUESDAY MAY 7
Beginning on Monday and growing in volume on Tuesday, the furor concerning Casada continued in the media, including calls by THE TENNESSEAN that he no longer deserves his job.
Not to forget how this scandal came to light, the State Legislative Black Caucus on Tuesday called for an independent investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The probe would explore allegations of Speaker Casada’s office trying to frame a civil rights activist through potentially doctored e-mails.
But the Speaker told a local radio station (WTN) on Tuesday, he would not resign. As for the sexually explicit texts, Casada did offer an apology, along with an explanation and a defense similar to what then-candidate, now President Donald Trump used during a similar controversy in the 2016 presidential campaign. The texts Casada says are ‘locker room talk.” Casada also clams he is now a changed man from what he was when he was sending and responding to these texts a few years back.
It should be noted that Speaker Casada’s efforts to defend himself, echoing back to 2016, are not just related to the presidential election. He has used a similar playbook to respond to earlier questions surrounding himself and to build support among GOP lawmakers.
WEDNESDAY MAY 8
By Wednesday reports surfaced that Casada was aware of the damaging text messages well before they even came to light/ He even tried to learn the source of how the media found out about them. All this happened while the Speaker was publicly attacking the veracity of the messages and said he thought they had been fabricated by NEWSCHANNEL5 and other media.
To Speaker Casada: Don’t begin your Crisis 101 damage control response by lying and making false accusations. The truth always comes out.
The Casada scandal continued to garner more national news headlines on Wednesday as the scandal deepened. Once again, issues surrounding our state lawmakers and how they view and treat women, as well as people of color, continue to come under rightful criticism and scorn.
In early part of the week, Governor Bill Lee’s office offered no comment.
Finally, some tweets from the Governor were posted (late Tuesday afternoon). Those comments, repeated by the Governor during a public appearance on Wednesday addressed the general subject matter, but without any mention of Speaker Casada, the specifics of this scandal, or what should be done.
Early in the week, Lt. Governor Randy McNally took a similar tact with his comments, as reported by THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE-PRESS: “McNally, the Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, said that
"Senate leadership and I are greatly disappointed by the inappropriate actions and attitudes revealed in recent news reports.
"Every person who interacts with the state legislature should be treated with the utmost respect," McNally said. "It is deeply troubling that some have fallen short of this standard. Tennesseans expect and deserve better from those who serve the public trust."
Meanwhile, McNally added, "Senate leadership is united in our commitment that members and staff continue to uphold the standard Tennesseans demand of their public officials."
But by late Tuesday and into Wednesday , a few GOP lawmakers had started backing away from Casada.
Social media also began playing a role as a #ResignCasada hashtag on Twitter gained momentum.
And all this was happening before another story broke Wednesday about the Speaker’s office being involved in what appears to be eavesdropping and surveillance activities on the Hill.
Casada says the spying charges are “laughable.” But this latest development has led to calls for still more investigations. That includes a letter from House Democrats to the local U.S. Attorney ‘s Office asking for an independent federal probe to ascertain if the surveillance activities constituted a felony.
All these new revelations on Wednesday seemed to break the dam. Even during a conference call with the Speaker himself on Wednesday afternoon, some Republicans began to make calls for him to
resign. That even includes lawmakers in the Republican House leadership such as Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn. Dunn is second in command among House Republicans, only to Casada.
Trying to save his job, Casada used the conference call with lawmakers to issue another apology and assure them there are no further revelations to come. He also released a plan of action for change going forward.
THURSDAY MAY 9
The growing chorus of calls for Speaker Casada to resign continued on Thursday, including: one of his long- time friends; from one of his fellow Williamson County lawmakers (Sam Whitson) and from other GOP leaders from across the state. Even a group that would seem to be part of Casada’s conservative base, the Tennessee Firearms Association, is calling for Casada to be removed!
Thursday was also when Lt. Governor Randy McNally further sharpened and focused his comments about the scandal as he talked in depth about during our INSIDE POLITICS interview this week.
Even some of residents in the Speaker’s home county (Williamson) began to sound off.
But others in the GOP House leadership are standing behind Speaker Casada.
By Thursday, the backwash from the Casada scandal seemed to be impacting Governor Lee who some think has not shown leadership in the matter.
By late Thursday, Governor Lee’s comments concerning the scandal changed. They now seem to mirror Speaker NcNally’s. The Governor now says about Speaker Casada: “If he worked for me, I would ask him to resign.”
Another prominent Tennessee elected official, U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn is also commenting. She is a resident of Williamson County which, after her election and that of Governor Lee along with the selection of Speaker Casada, has become the most politically powerful county in the state. Senator Blackburn is not calling for Glen Casada to resign. His departure is up to the State House to decide she says. But she is certainly not happy with the Speaker.
Of course, national news coverage of this story continued to grow on Thursday.
If a picture (or pictures) are worth a thousand words, this NEWSCHANNEL5 INVESTIGATES story posted Thursday says a lot about the cozy relationship between Speaker Casada and his now former chief of staff.
As mentioned, Knoxville representative and Speaker Pro-Tem Bill Dunn would at least temporarily become Speaker if Casada steps down. Dunn says he is not sure he wants the job, but some GOP leaders think he would be a great choice. That includes Lt Governor Randy McNally and former Knoxville State Representative and State Senator Victor Ashe.
What happens next? Escalating crisis are difficult to predict, especially when or how they might end. But this article outlines four possibilities.
FRIDAY MAY 10
As the week ended GOP lawmakers are trying to convene a Republican House Caucus meeting to decide a strategy about how to address the now-week long Casada scandal. Remember the GOP Super Majority is north of 70 votes, more than needed to call a special session of the House if needed to oust Casada if that option is pursued. There would likely be Democrats to vote for a special session as well.
As the work week ends, the bugging or spying aspect of the scandal is gaining more attention. This story raises a most interesting and troubling aspect of what has been revealed so far.
As they say, this is a developing story. Stay tuned! There could be new developments at any time. Or not.
If you are keeping score (one way or another), as of Thursday afternoon, here’s a list of Tennessee lawmakers who have spoken out on the Casada matter, and who hasn’t. This list too is subject to change.
And there is also this “hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil “approach of the Tennessee Republican Party about what’s happened this week.
Political leaders can only succeed if they have the confidence of the public and, in Speaker Casada’s case, the confidence of his fellow lawmakers. This past week that confidence has been very badly shaken, if not destroyed. If he decides to remain in office, the question is will Speaker Casada be too weakened to be effective in his job?
At md-day Friday, here’s one media summary of where Casada stands after a very politically brutal week for him.
A NEW CHIEF OF STAFF
Even as the controversy rages, Speaker Casada moved quickly to fill his chief of staff post. The person he’s chosen has already been serving on his staff. Scott Gilmer also has previously served as the chief of staff for former GOP House Speaker Beth Harwell. Unfortunately, Casada’s new top aide has a history of controversy too.
THE FBI PROBES THE ESA/VOUCHER VOTE
Is the scandal on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill growing even wider?
NEWSCHANNEL5 INVESTIGATES posted a story late Thursday that the FBI is making inquiries into the recent House vote approving an Education Saving Account or school voucher program for Tennessee. The vote was extremely close. In fact, the final tally was held up in order to find enough lawmakers to vote yes to approve the bill. The focus of the FBI probe is whether any improper incentives were offered to pass Gov. Bill Lee's number one legislative priority.
Stay tuned for more concerning this latest development.
A LEGISLATIVE ROUNDUP
All the fallout surrounding the Speaker Casada scandal has certainly obscured the end of this year’s legislative session. Lawmakers ended the first year of the 111th Tennessee General Assembly a week ago Thursday night (May 2) with the tumultuous last day we mentioned earlier. The Associated Press has posted this round up of winners and losers on the Hill this year.
Don’t forget, even some of the loser bills can still be revived and considered again next year. Even the winners are likely facing legal challenges. That’s true for the new voter registration restrictions lawmakers approved. A lawsuit from the NAACP was filed almost as soon as Governor Bill Lee announced he had signed the measure into law. The new law (and now the lawsuit) continue to receive quite a bit of national media attention.
By the way, Reuters, if you haven’t made the correction in your story, the Tennessee governor’s first name is Bill, not Mike.
There was even another lawsuit filed this week against the voter registration bill.
Beyond the FBI inquiry we mentioned earlier in the column, legal action is also likely coming against Governor Lee’s signature parental school choice legislation. The limited Voucher pilot program would provide $7300 annual Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to income-qualifying parents to enroll their children in private schools as well as pay for other education-related expenses with tax dollars.
The program is limited to just Nashville/Davidson County and Memphis/ Shelby County. School Boards in both counties said they would sue to stop the program. However, in passing the bill, lawmakers inserted a provision banning any such suits from the school boards.
A lawsuit on some grounds is expected to be filed eventually challenging the ESA program, perhaps over the eligibility of those of undocumented residency. The ESA program won’t begin until the 2021-2022 school year.
THE SICK OUT
Last Friday nearly 1,000 Metro teachers asked for substitutes to take their place in the classroom. Monday it was still over 900. Some educators claim the absences were a ‘sick-out” in protest of Metro Mayor David Briley’s recommendation of just a 3% cost of living pay raise. They want 10% and the Metro School Board has recommended it.
But how many of the teacher absences were really protests? Mayor Briley, when he was my guest last weekend on INSIDE POLITICS, suggested teacher outages were about as high the same weekend last year, which followed the end of the state’s student testing cycle.
Whatever it was, Metro school officials say it is time to focus on the children in the classroom, and, as of Tuesday, organizers say the ‘sick out” is over for now. Teachers absences were down to about 550 on Tuesday, which is reportedly the normal daily level among the city’s 5000 public school teachers.
So what will unhappy teachers do next? NEWSCHANNEL5 reported some teacher protestors showed up when Mayor Briley attended an event at Eakin Elementary on Wednesday. So maybe we will more that occur.
Years ago, teachers and other city employees wanting more pay, annually marched in mass to the Courthouse when the Metro Council held its budget hearings, especially when public comment was solicited. I would guess that might be another next step to keep teacher unhappiness known and put the heat on the Council to do something to help. What help that will be, short of raising property taxes in an election year or drastically cutting other parts of the city’s budget, is hard to predict.
Mayor Briley says he is recommending the biggest raise he can within existing revenues. He wants to negotiate a multi-year agreement with the School Board and the Council to allow for larger raises over time But it is doubtful such a memorandum of understanding can be reached in this budget consideration cycle, and any additional raises will still be subject to annual review and approval, which due to a shortage of funds, saw a 3% pay boost for city workers cancelled last year.
The controversies surrounding Mayor David Briley proposed budget extend beyond pay raises. Council members are again concerned about the significant use of reserve money and one-time payments to sell or privatize the city’s on-street parking system and the downtown energy system to balance the budget.
Some Council leaders are again looking at proposing a property tax hike instead. Raising taxes with support of the mayor has never happened in the 56- year history of Metro. It failed last year although somewhat narrowly. 2019 is a Metro election year. It’s hard to believe Metro Council would approve a tax hike only about a month before almost all of them are seeking re-election.
STATE TESTING FINALLY WENT SMOOTHLY THIS YEAR
I mentioned the state’s annual testing cycle for students, which recently concluded. For several years it’s been an ongoing mess of technical and other issues. But this year, even as the state seeks a new test provider and will go back next year to conducting the tests with pen and paper so the new test provider can get up to speed, this latest round of on-line testing statewide testing seemed to go off without a hitch. For once, TNReady seemed to live up to its name.
PARK IT FOR NOW
Getting back to the Metro budget, some councilmembers might look at the $34 million Metro would receive under Mayor David Briley’s privatization plan for the city’s on-street parking system, as a way to find more money for teacher pay. But the payment is one -time money and using that to cover a recurring expense such as teacher salary is not a good idea.
Besides the contract the Briley administration has negotiated with a firm to take over operations of the on-street parking system has been put on hold by a local judge.
I am told the city’s move to sell its downtown heating system is also facing a contract challenge.
METRO CHARTER AMENDMENTS
When Nashville voters go to the polls August 1st, they will have two amendments to the Metro Charter to consider. One would require the Mayor to include more financial details to the Council during the budget process, especially concerning the city’s debt level. The other charter change would attempt to clarify the filling of vacancies on the Metro School Board and bring that process into compliance with state law.
Somewhat surprisingly, a third amendment to eliminate city election runoffs by allowing “instant runoffs” so voters could rank their candidate preferences, will not be on the ballot. While the measure got preliminary approval (27 votes) a few weeks ago, a final vote was deferred because the Council’s voting and sound system crashed. When the final vote came up Tuesday night the value voting proposal came up a few votes short.
MLB EXPANSION TEAM IN NASHVILLE
Even though the effort to bring a Major League Baseball expansion team to Nashville is being driven largely by an out of town group, they will be meeting with the Office of MLB Commissioner next week according to THE TENNESSEAN.
It is thought MLB will add two new teams in the next few years and/or some existing franchises might re-locate. The MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred listed Nashville last summer as one of six cities the league is considering. One well known baseball publication (Street & Smith) lists Nashville third among cities contending for teams. Plans would place a new major league baseball stadium on the East Bank on the old Steiner-Liff (PSC Metals) recycling property.
In talking with Mayor David Briley about what might be next for Nashville after the city’s successful hosting of the National Football League draft, I mentioned an MLB franchise. The Mayor confirmed such an effort, including to build a new stadium, would have to occur without city funding.
NEW LEASE FOR THE PREDATORS
Staying in the area of sports, THE TENNESSEAN reports the Briley administration has negotiated a new long-term lease (30 years) that will keep the Nashville Predators in town. The new agreement with the team may also lessen the amount of money taxpayers shell out to support the team.
WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE COMING TO NASHVILLE?
THE TENNESSEAN has this fascinating story. Based on a LinkedIn report, it attempts to answer the question of where all the folks moving to Nashville are coming from? Think some big cities and Knoxville. Click below and read on.
THE FIRST MAYORAL ADS ARE RELEASED
State Representative John Ray Clemmons is the first Nashville mayoral candidate to release a campaign ad. It is introductory in nature, and at over two minutes in length, you are more likely to see it on- line on his campaign web site or in your Facebook feed. If the campaign has the budget, you will likely see parts of the video in the months to come in Clemmons’ :30 to :60 second cable and broadcast TV ads.
Interestingly, if you explore the Clemmons web site link below, you will also find a series of other videos that could likely wind up in the campaign’s paid media.
With the qualifying deadline to run next week (Thursday May 16) the level of activity in the mayor’s race continues to rise. Mayor David Briley was due to file his qualifying petition today (Friday) while At-Large Councilman John Cooper is holding a campaign kickoff with burgers at beer at a local restaurant (Gabby’s).
Here is one last, somewhat unrelated, political note this week. 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden is coming to Nashville. The former Vice President, and apparent party frontrunner, will be here on May 20 as a part of his opening national campaign tour. Details still to come.