Black lawmakers in the state legislature are calling for an independent investigation into text messages sent by House Speaker Glen Casada and his now former chief of staff, as well as a claim the aide may have falsified evidence used against a political opponent.
They say an independent review is needed to determine whether the racist and sexist statements made in texts sent by Cade Cothren — including some that went to his boss and mentor — are an aberration or indicative of wider cultural problems.
Cothren resigned late Monday after a series of text chains sent between 2014 and 2016 were leaked to NewsChannel 5 and The Tennessean. They showed Cothren talking about drug use in legislative offices, making racist statements, soliciting sex from interns and lobbyists, and boasting about his sex life, sometimes with Casada's encouragement.
State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, chairman of the legislature's Black Caucus, says the behaviors Cothren described may seem to be unrelated, but they're actually linked.
"Sexism and racism are kinfolk," Hardaway says. "They're sister and brother. They come from the same parents: ignorance and arrogance. So those women and those people of color who have had to work in this hostile environment on Capitol Hill deserve relief."
Cothren has admitted that at least some of the texts are authentic. He's blamed the pressures of politics and "maladaptive coping mechanisms" for his behavior but adds he's changed since becoming more religious. Casada has written off his participation in the text exchanges as "locker room talk" and likewise says that he's changed.
'Starts At The Top'
But state Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, says they illustrate a pattern of disrespect toward women and people of color.
"That's the culture in the State Capitol, and it has to end," she says. "It starts at the top, and it filters all the way down."
Gilmore stopped short of calling for Casada to resign, as did Hardaway. Both say they want to wait until the Black Caucus has had a chance to discuss their position.
But Democratic state Rep. Vincent Dixie of Nashville, who joined Gilmore and Hardaway for a press conference Tuesday, says his mind is made up.
"We need to make some changes. We need changes at the top," he says. "Glen Casada needs to be removed from office."
Some Republican activists are also saying the House speaker should resign.
The @Tennessean and @NC5 reporting on @GlenCasada and his former Chief of Staff confirm the Left’s narratives on social conservative hypocrisy and race. It also confirms the civilian population’s worst fears about politics generally. It erodes the public trust. Period.
— Real TN Politics (@realtnpolitics) May 7, 2019
If everything in this article is accurate it may be time for Glen himself to step down. Shoulda thrown that idiot chief of staff under the bus while he had the chance.https://t.co/pu9BjWVnP0
— Phil Valentine (@ValentineShow) May 6, 2019
Senate Speaker Randy McNally says the allegations described are "deeply troubling." Republican Gov. Bill Lee says they've shaken public confidence in the state's leaders.
"When we choose to enter public service, we have an obligation to hold ourselves to a higher standard and cultivate an environment of professionalism and respect," Lee says in a prepared statement.
"We owe it to Tennesseans to ensure they know that all of us in elected office hold ourselves to that high standard. Recent revelations have shaken that faith, and we need to ensure that confidence is fully restored."
The Black Caucus wants the TBI to look into the texts, as well as the allegation that Cothren doctored the date on an email to make it look like an African American activist had violated a court's no-contact order. Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk has asked for a special prosecutor to be appointed to look into whether Cothren might have committed a crime.
Casada says a technological glitch confused his staff about when the email was received. But black lawmakers say they're aren't buying it.
"There are several issues here that need to be investigated," Hardaway says.
A spokesman for the TBI says it's aware of the Black Caucus's request for it to get involved. The spokesman adds that the agency has contacted the state's District Attorneys General Conference to discuss whether to proceed.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the House Republican Caucus says GOP lawmakers are also assessing the situation, which he notes evolved quickly, with several new revelations in the past day.
"I think all those text messages were disturbing," says state Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville. "I don't think it's representative of the General Assembly or the legislature as a whole. I know the vast majority of those individuals aren't like that. It seems like there's a few."
Sexton praised Cothren for stepping down voluntarily.