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Tennessee House Replaces Speaker, Delays Action on Lawmaker

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán/WPLN

Tennessee state representatives elected a new House speaker Friday, following months of chaos inside the GOP-dominated chamber as the former leader became engulfed in multiple scandals involving sexually explicit text messages.

House members met for a special legislative session with the sole purpose of naming Rep. Cameron Sexton to lead the chamber. There were no opposing votes, though two Democratic members abstained.

"In this chamber, I will always encourage robust but respectful debate," Sexton said during his acceptance speech. "Debate and conversation make us stronger."

Replacing a speaker in the middle of a term is extremely rare in Tennessee. The last premature speaker resignation came in 1931 in the Senate.

House Republicans nominated Sexton as Speaker Glen Casada's replacement last month, but the full House needed to cast an official vote in order for Sexton to take over.

Yet the speakership question was largely overshadowed Friday by a showdown between a handful of Democratic lawmakers and GOP leaders over how to deal with Republican Rep. David Byrd, of Waynesboro, who's been accused of sexual misconduct by three women nearly 30 years ago when he was a high school basketball coach.

Byrd has not outright denied the allegations since they were first broadcast in a media report more than a year ago, but has said he's sorry if he hurt or emotionally upset any of his students.

"We can't ask these victims to wait any longer," said Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson, of Knoxville, making a motion to expel Byrd.

However, Republican leadership intervened and the chamber agreed on a 71-25 vote to delay any action on Byrd until an investigation has been completed.

"These allegations are very serious. To the victims that are here today, know that we believe in due process and that's exactly what we have called for," said Republican Rep. Michael Curcio, of Dickson, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Republicans have long resisted taking any action against Byrd —with some choosing to accuse the accusers of being politically motivated.

Casada eventually resigned as speaker Aug. 2 after revelations he exchanged sexually explicit text messages about women with his former chief of staff years ago. Other controversies included an aide's cocaine use at a legislative office years ago and allegations of doctoring emails to frame a young black activist.

Casada initially resisted calls from inside his GOP caucus to step down as speaker. However, as the scandals persisted and the caucus voted they no longer had confidence in his leadership, he finally consented.

Casada, who remains a House member, was not present during Friday's session.

With Casada out as speaker, victim's rights activists hoped new speaker would take charge to expel Byrd from the body — an equally rare move in Tennessee as replacing a speaker prematurely. Only two House members have been ousted by the chamber in the state's history.

Byrd refused to answer questions from reporters Friday, including whether he would seek reelection in 2020. Instead, Byrd said he would provide an update by the end of September.

Byrd addressed the GOP caucus during a closed door meeting before Friday's legislative session, but legislative leaders have declined to reveal what was discussed because they argue it was a "family discussion."

"I said I was going to make a statement at the end of September, you'll know my statement then," Byrd said.

Sexton has requested the attorney general's guidance on whether the House can expel a lawmaker for decades-old conduct. Democrats have called the request a "delay tactic," but Sexton says the opinion will help provide the framework on the best way to move forward.

One of the Byrd's accusers, Christi Rice, recorded a call in which Byrd apologized but didn't detail his action and denied anything happened with other students.

Byrd was 28 at the time and working as head coach at Wayne County High School when Rice says he abused her.

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