Glen Casada: The rise and fall of a House Speaker
Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, looks pensive at his desk in the Tennessee House of Representatives in Jan. 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Two and a half years removed from resignation as House Speaker and a year from an FBI raid, Rep. Glen Casada continues to grapple with the reason for his exit.
Despite an overwhelming no-confidence vote by his own House Republican Caucus in 2019, Casada still contends his only fault was participating in a handful of bad texts. Sexist and racist texts to him by his chief of staff, Cade Cothren, were the catalysts for his departure as speaker, but many people believe they only opened the door.
Casada made history by holding the speakership for the shortest time in modern history, only six months when he stepped down in August that year.
Yet after falling from the pinnacle of political power in Tennessee and seeing his private life unravel – he lost his job as a veterinary pharmaceutical salesman and went through a divorce – Casada says he learned a critical lesson.
“Be content where you are. If it’s speaker of the House, state representative, county clerk, if it’s being retired and enjoying that time with your grandkids. … That’s the one thing I can say I’ve learned: Be content with where God puts you in life.”
Casada, though, is no longer satisfied with being a House member and will step down at the end of 2022 from his District 63 post in Williamson County. He is mulling a run for the Williamson County Clerk’s seat.
Only 62, Casada says he needs to stay active, mentally and physically, and he believes the county clerk’s office would fit his “natural talents and gifts.”
The question is whether Williamson County voters are willing to put him in charge of the clerk’s office after his highly-publicized fall from grace and during a federal probe, which appears to remain ongoing.
Casada won re-election with ease in 2020, even after his embarrassing resignation from the House Speaker’s seat.
He has deep roots in Williamson County politics, going back to 1993 when his Trinity community wanted a ballpark. Their county commissioner didn’t fight hard enough, so Casada’s community formed a Trinity Parks and Recreation Association, and their movement “gravitated” toward Casada running for the County Commission to articulate the message.
He ran and served two terms before a House seat came open in 2000 as Tennesseans were debating an income tax, which spurred conservatives to act. Casada “strongly opposed” the income tax, ran on that platform and won in a 2001 special election.
Over the years, he championed every conservative cause that came his way. He garnered heavy criticism in 2015 for saying Syrians needed to be rounded up and returned to their country. He contends he was taken out of context but has no qualms saying unvetted refugees need to be sent back to their country of origin.
His outspoken methods meshed well with a changing Legislature, as Democrats started to find themselves on the outside.
In fact, most Republicans credit Casada with bringing them a supermajority in the House, which they dominate with a 73-26 advantage and show no signs of losing.
Ambitious, energetic and determined to create a Republican majority, he was elected House Republican Caucus chairman in 2004 and started raising money and recruiting candidates. Republicans wound up taking the majority in 2008.
Two years later, Republicans won a supermajority, enabling them to capture just about any vote that came up. Casada lost his first bid for the speakership against longtime Rep. Beth Harwell of Belle Meade, as she became the first woman to capture the leadership post, but he wasn’t fazed.
Harwell, who refers to Casada as the “Energizer bunny,” recalls that after her victory he was one of the first people to come to visit her office and offer to help.
“That kind of attitude goes a long way within a legislative body,” says Harwell, who made a failed gubernatorial bid in 2018, opening the door for Casada’s ascension to the speakership.
Harwell notes Casada helped Republicans across the state win election to the state House.
He says he did it with a two-pronged approach, raising money and pushing legislation that would show voters exactly how their representatives were voting. This enabled Republicans to run their own candidates against Democrats they thought were out of touch with voters.
But Casada also wound up putting a lot of the House members he helped elect into leadership positions and in some instances alienating those who had held key posts because they supported others in the Speaker’s race or ran afoul of him somehow.
For instance, Rep. Ryan Williams, who was Republican Caucus chairman when Casada was caucus leader, was stripped of leadership and made an outlier in the House. The same thing happened to Rep. Jeremy Faison, who is now caucus chairman.
Casada created more committees and subcommittees when he took the top spot in 2019, rewarding those who voted for him, and even gave some leadership jobs to Democrats such as Reps. John Mark Windle and Darren Jernigan.
House Minority Leader Karen Camper, who had to apologize to Casada and the chamber after grabbing the speaker’s microphone one day during a heated debate, believes his undoing stemmed from the promises he made to rank-and-file members.
“No matter how you feel about Glen Casada or his legacy, no one can deny that he played a key role in the Republicans making the large gains they did in the House of Representatives. He recruited and backed candidates early on in their races and many of the new Republican members from the past decade can point to Casada as an early booster and advisor. Building those coalitions helped move him up through leadership and eventually to his truncated reign as speaker,” Camper says.
In his first few months as Speaker, several members grew agitated with his leadership style, especially when they found out he added staff and paid Chief of Staff Cade Cothren nearly $200,000 to do his bidding.
Maybe the office was a lot, and I think when you're speaker . . . People underestimate how important it is to have the right people around you to give you good advice . . . I just think that . . . maybe some things he thought were funny were not funny.
– Beth Harwell, former Speaker of the House
Members also complained that legislative analysts acted as “hall monitors,” more or less spying on them to see who they were talking to and what they might be talking about.
In addition, members grew upset when they found out he hired a political operative to spin news in his favor, such as the situation surrounding Rep. David Byrd, who was accused of making sexual advances toward some of the girls basketball players he coached in the 1980s. Byrd, who nearly died last year of COVID-19, still has not denied the allegations.
Despite Casada’s never-say-die attitude, Harwell wonders if he was cut out to handle the leadership.
“I just think maybe the office was a lot, and I think when you’re speaker … People underestimate how important it is to have the right people around you to give you good advice. And just always watch yourself. And I think his heart was in the right place, his intentions were right, but I just think that … maybe some things he thought were funny were not funny.”
State Rep. Sam Whitson agrees with the assessment that Casada surrounded himself with the wrong people. The Franklin Republican says Casada always treated him with respect and, in fact, brought some $25 million in funding for the Katie Beckett waiver legislation designed to help parents of fragile children who struggle to pay for treatment and care.
However, the amount of power and the salary given to Cothren hurt Casada the most among the House Republican Caucus, Whitson believes.
“How it unraveled, to me, was just one of those unfortunate things in people’s lives,” Whitson says.
Casada participated in sexist text messages in which Cothren described a sexual encounter with a lobbyist. He also received a text with a racist meme, though Casada says he never saw that text and would have told his friends to stop that kind of activity if he had.
“Maybe he put too much trust in Cade,” Whitson says.
Reports also showed Cothren admitted to using cocaine in the Legislative Plaza offices before he became chief of staff and sending texts bragging about a drug binge while on his way to a concert.
But Whitson also says, “He never asked me to do anything illegal, immoral or unlawful the whole time I was up there, especially when he was speaker.”
The voucher vote
Federal agents began investigating not long after Casada held the House vote board open for nearly 45 minutes in April 2019 to break a deadlock on Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account bill. A tie vote would kill the bill and make him appear incapable of delivering a key vote on the governor’s main initiative.
He is believed to have told Rep. Windle, a colonel in the National Guard, he could get him the position of general, an allegation Casada continues to deny.
State Rep. David Hawk was outraged that day when Cothren approached him before the vote and asked what it would take to get his support. Hawk, who declined to comment for this article, told Cothren he had nothing he wanted.
Ultimately, Republican Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville agreed to change his vote and support the voucher bill as long as Knox County Schools would be removed as a voucher-eligible district. The bill passed but was found unconstitutional in two courts and is to go before the Tennessee Supreme Court early this year.
Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell heard the heated conversation between Cothren and Hawk that day and believed for the moment the bill would be defeated.
Nearly three years later, he says the voucher vote was the “ultimate downfall” of Casada.
“There were no limits to what he would do to ensure that would pass. There was no law he would not break to ensure that bill passed,” says Mitchell, who represents the western portion of Davidson County.
Likewise, Harwell believes Casada made a critical error in how he handled the ESA bill, putting too much pressure on members. The day of strong-arm tactics is over in the Legislature, she adds.
“I think he was trying to help the governor out, but ultimately, members resented that. And I can’t blame them. I think it was a mistake on his part,” Harwell says.
Casada ran afoul, as well, of students advocating for the removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the State Capitol.
Activist Justin Jones, who later led an occupation of the War Memorial Plaza, was charged with assault for throwing a drink on Casada and other lawmakers as they entered a Capitol elevator. Jones accused Cothren of manipulating an email to make it look as if he violated a court order.
But Republican lawmakers put little stock in that incident.
Instead, they grew weary of Casada’s leadership style.
Rep. Mark White, who was appointed chairman of the House Education Committee by Casada, said at the time a bill “kill list” was circulated by Casada’s proxies, a move that made lawmakers feel left out of the process.
There were no limits to what he would do to ensure (the school voucher bill) would pass. There was no law he would break to ensure that bill passed.
– Rep. Bo Mitchell, Nashville Democrat, of Casada
On one hand, White, an East Memphis Republican, says Casada always supported him. He also speaks highly of Casada’s work ethic and “good attitude” in the General Assembly, even after he lost to Harwell.
“I was impressed with his ability not to let defeat get him down,” White says.
But at the same time, White points out the 99 House members work hard to get elected in their own districts, and they don’t like “heavy-handed” tactics.
“If they feel they are being too tightly controlled, it will eventually come back to bite any member or anyone in leadership,” White says.
Casada defends himself, saying he didn’t have any “hall monitors,” nor did he kill anybody’s bills.
“It just became rumors, and people believed them,” he says. “But rumors have the same effect as truth, and so, obviously, the members felt uncomfortable, and I didn’t realize they felt this way ’til the very end.”
He says he didn’t mean to alienate Republican members, either, and though he tried he wasn’t able to win back members of the Black Caucus who were upset over his texts, primarily the one including a racist meme.
Casada says he never recalled seeing the racist text, but he does admit participating in three chains of sexist text messages two to three years before he became Speaker.
“After work, I’d go out with these guys and I should not have text messaged, that’s not who I am, that’s not who I am today. I should not have participated in that kind of talk. And I did, and I was wrong, and … members didn’t approve of it, and I don’t blame ’em. And it had the consequences,” Casada says.
The texts were between adult men and weren’t meant for public consumption, but they found their way into news reports and he couldn’t back down from his mistakes.
He also believes the no-confidence vote, which took place in a Nashville boutique hotel where the press was pushed to the side, was based mainly on the three text messages, which caused him to lose the confidence of the House Republican Caucus.
But he claims he did not try to make any illegal offers to members during the voucher vote. Casada says he simply told conservative members they would be siding the Tennessee Education Association if they voted against the governor’s ESA bill.
“I did meet with members to have them change their minds, but the speaker has nothing to give. There’s nothing the speaker today or the lieutenant governor or me can offer a member without the body voting on it,” he says.
FBI drops in
Federal agents raided the homes and offices of Casada and Republican state Reps. Robin Smith of Hamilton County and Todd Warner of Chapel Hill in early January 2021, shortly before the Legislature convened. The feds also went through the office of Republican Rep. Kent Calfee of Kingston, who has since been cleared, and investigated three other staff members, who were placed on temporary leave. Two remain suspended.
The FBI hasn’t given a reason for the raid, but speculation focuses on potential money laundering charges and two shadowy vendors who did business with the House Republican Caucus, Smith and Warner.
Phoenix Solutions, a New Mexico-based company, and Dixieland Strategies out of Alabama, both of which went underground after reporters started asking questions, played a role in the 2020 elections, using the same postal mailing code.
The campaign coordinator of former Rep. Rick Tillis, who was critical of Casada’s tactics, accused Warner of violating campaign finance laws.
Casada denies having any connection with Phoenix Solutions, but says Cothren would have to be contacted to see if he was behind the company. Cothren did not respond last January when asked if he wanted to make a statement about the FBI raid.
The former speaker also claims he doesn’t know why the FBI is investigating him.
“They’ve raided and they took information out, and they haven’t called me or contacted me since then. I’m at a loss on why, to this day,” he says. On his attorney’s advice, he declines to answer any more questions about the investigation.
With the General Assembly set to convene Tuesday, Casada says he’s planning his legislative agenda for the year. The past couple of years have been uneventful for him.
He says he’s doing fine financially, despite losing his job and trying to pick up other work, but wants to stay active and is considering the run for Williamson County Clerk, which pays more than $135,000.
He started getting cocky when he became the speaker, and he just thought he could do what he wanted to.
– Former Casada opponent Courtenay Rogers, vice-chair of the Williamson County Democratic Party
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, a Franklin Republican, notes that Casada has been involved in Williamson County and state government for decades and has been a “great legislator.”
“And I think that’s evidenced by the margins by which he’s been re-elected many, many times. He’s done a great job, so we’re going to miss him in the General Assembly,” Johnson says.
Courtenay Rogers, though, who ran against Casada as a Democrat in 2016, says he won re-election numerous times because of voter apathy and bully tactics, often threatening to take down opponents and in at least one incident having a foe kicked off the Republican ballot.,
“He started getting cocky when he became the speaker, and he just thought he could do what he wanted to. And luckily, he got caught,” says Rogers, vice chairman of the Williamson County Democratic Party.
Casada, however, isn’t willing to let critics ruin his perception of 30 years in political life. He says he’s “at peace,” accepting the consequences of participating in those text messages and “allowing rumors” to define his leadership.
“And I’ve learned that contentment doesn’t come from a position, it doesn’t come from money. It comes from within, and it comes from seeking God. So that’s where I am, and I’m happy,” he says.
One wonders, though, whether Casada continues to look at his world through rose-colored glasses or whether he has any choice after such a precipitous fall.
Says Harwell, “He wanted to be speaker for so very long, and then when he finally acquired that position, it also brought him down, which, in a way, is sad.”
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