The Tri-Star State: House Speaker Cameron Sexton On House Culture, Transparency And David Byrd | Nashville Public Radio

The Tri-Star State: House Speaker Cameron Sexton On House Culture, Transparency And David Byrd

Aug 23, 2019

The new speaker of the Tennessee House is making the case that he is different from his predecessor.

In an interview with WPLN, Crossville Republican Cameron Sexton said he wants to create an environment where members welcome different opinions.

That means he is going to make some changes in the Tennessee House of Representatives. He wants it to be productive, but he also wants to give all lawmakers a chance to be heard. 

“Everybody who is a member, they are elected by 65,000 people in their districts to be here," Sexton said. "So, they deserve the respect that their voters give them to be here.”

This mentality is somewhat different from the one of former House Speaker Glen Casada. He was known for twisting arms to get a vote, and some members have claimed that Casada created an environment of fear. For instance, they said that during the school voucher debate this spring, Casada and a top aide pressured them to flip their votes.

Sexton was a holdout and was one of the Republicans who voted against that legislation. Sexton said he had “philosophical differences” with Casada over the law. But, he said he accepts the outcome.

“Whether or not I voted for or against it, that’s the law and we need to move forward from that,” Sexton said.

Sexton does defend one part of Casada’s approach during that voucher debate. The former speaker negotiated the language of the bill with some members in private. Sexton said that is not illegal and is not the same as not being transparent. 

"I think what transparency means is to allow people to understand what is going on, the direction that we are moving," Sexton said. "You have meetings with various people and various entities, and sometimes those are open or closed."

Those meetings include the ones organized by the House Republican caucus. Sexton’s old job was that group's chairman, which means he was in charge of deciding whether its meetings were open.

That determination has been especially important because Republicans hold a supermajority in the House. So, they could settle on a vote right there, behind closed doors. 

Sexton said only one, 10-minute caucus meeting was closed to the press this year. But, in fact, there was at least one more — when Republicans debated whether they had confidence in Glen Casada. Reporters were not even allowed to stay on the same floor of the hotel conference room where the meeting was taking place.

But Sexton is trying to distance himself from Casada’s leadership style and decision making and, to show he’s different, he said he’s going to clean house. He promised his colleagues he will not be re-hiring staffers who were tight to Casada. He also said that some aides currently working there might lose their jobs.

"We are going to do a top-down approach in the General Assembly on the House side," Sexton said, "just make sure that we have people who are wanting to work, who are here to work and who are working."

But one person he is not going to push out is embattled Waynesboro Republican David Byrd. He has been accused by three women of sexual assault while he was their high school coach in the 1980s. Sexton says Byrd should not be expelled.

"When you look at it, his voters made that determination to send him back up here based on the information they were given back in the campaign," Sexton said. "So, when you look at that, you have to balance the will of the voters and overturning the will of the voters based on having that information before them over something — over an allegation that was made from 30 years ago."

When asked where the line for him as speaker to ask a member to step down, Sexton said a conviction or indictment for criminal activity.

"Outside of that, it's very hard to make that determination, and it will have to be based on a case-by-case basis," Sexton said.

He said it's up to Byrd to decide whether to continue in the legislature.

Our ongoing conversations about Tennessee politics are available in The Tri-Star State podcast. You can listen by visiting wpln.org/tristar or subscribe using your favorite podcasting app.