House Speaker Glen Casada issued a written apology Wednesday for a series of racist and sexist texts between him and a top aide and put out an "action plan" meant to restore trust in his office — all in an effort to head off a serious challenge to his leadership.
After holding a conference call with House Republicans, Casada promised diversity training for all House members and staff, drug testing for new employees, and a review of the legislature's personnel policies. The Franklin Republican also agreed to cooperate with an outside investigation into whether his former chief of staff falsified evidence against a political opponent.
The statements come as the first members of Casada's party are saying publicly that the speaker ought to resign. Those include Knoxville Rep. Bill Dunn, the speaker pro tempore.
"Yesterday in a private call, I shared with the speaker that he should step down," Dunn says. "I have not instructed any other member on what action or position they should take."
Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee condemned the racist and sexist attitudes revealed in texts sent between Casada and his former chief of staff, Cade Cothren. But Lee stopped short of recommending any course of action.
"What's unfolded in the last couple of days is disturbing," Lee says. "And, the people of Tennessee deserve to have an environment on Capitol Hill that is respectful and holds to a high standard that we all expect."
The scandal has unfolded over a series of days. It began with a report by NewsChannel 5 that the Nashville district attorney had asked for a special prosecutor to look into whether Cothren doctored an email to make it look like an activist had violated a judge's order not to contact the speaker.
That report also included text messages ascribed to Cothren that showed him disparaging African Americans. One of those texts appeared to have been sent to Casada.
Texts released later showed Cothren bragging about using cocaine at the legislature and boasting to Casada about a sexual encounter in a restaurant bathroom. The latter texts show Casada praising Cothren for his behavior.
Cothren resigned on Monday, but Casada's explanations for the texts have shifted. He first questioned their authenticity, then tried to write them off in an interview with WWTN radio as "locker room talk." Finally on Wednesday, Casada conceded that the texts were real.
"It’s embarrassing and humbling to have it displayed in this manner. I apologize and hope that my friends, family, colleagues and constituents find a way to forgive me for it because it is not the person I am."
Casada says the texts, which dated from 2014 to 2016, don't reflect his character now.
But Casada has frequently had to address questions about his personal life. In late 2016, Casada's political ascendancy was nearly derailed when a blog posted an secretly shot photos of him drinking with young women. Casada emphatically denied ever having an extramarital affair — a statement that House Republicans appeared to accept.
In an interview with WPLN in January, Casada said he was willing to face scrutiny about her personal life.
"You don't see me hide," Casada said. "My life is an open life, and just watch how I live."
Still, House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, says he was surprised by Casada's texts and has not witnessed such behavior by the speaker.
"Absolutely, I was shocked," Lamberth said.
Casada says he wants to extend his apologies in person to the legislature's Black Caucus. In his action plan, he calls on the group to work with him to develop a diversity training curriculum.
But one member of the Black Caucus, state Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, says the gestures aren't enough.
"I don't know if he can regain the confidence. It's been a drip, drip, drip — every day something else comes out."
Gilmore says she's come to believe the only way to right the situation would be for Casada to step aside.