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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's Republican House speaker pushed back Monday against calls for him to resign, arguing that if a handful of "base" text messages can run someone out of office, then no one is qualified.
Speaker Glen Casada's comments came just hours before Tennessee's Black Caucus of State Legislators issued a rare announcement that its 17 members — made up of both Senate and House lawmakers — were requesting the Republican be removed from his leadership post.
The caucus took the step after deliberating for more than six hours on Monday, at times with Casada, but largely secluded in a private meeting in a legislative conference room with various members either in attendance or calling in.
While meeting with the caucus, Casada apologized for racist texts sent by a former top aide, among other discussions. Particularly, Casada says he was on one group text with a racist message from then press secretary of the House Republican Caucus Cade Cothren, but claims he didn't see it.
"There's a requirement upon elected officials, as they assume higher office, to have more moral compass than has been exhibited by the speaker," said Rep. G.A. Hardaway, chairman of the Black Caucus.
Casada has been the center of several growing scandals for more than a week, including one involving recently revealed texts he exchanged years ago with his former chief of staff containing lewd remarks about women. He has also fielded a question on whether Cothren tampered with evidence involving a young black activist's criminal case.
At least seven Republican House members have called for Casada's speakership resignation publicly so far, though some lawmakers have hinted the number could be higher.
However, Casada has remained undeterred in the calls for his resignation and has said he welcomes an ongoing push to hold a House GOP caucus meeting, which could involve a vote of confidence on whether he should remain the House's top leader.
"I think that it's important that I stay because if two texts run someone out of office, then there is no one qualified," Casada told reporters of two recently revealed text threads. "We've got members all across the community that have done things that are not excusable and they're still in leadership roles. I did those two texts. I've sought and received forgiveness for it, and so now it's time to put the House back together."
After the text messages were released, Casada assured GOP caucus members during an emergency conference call last week that no more scandalous texts were left to be discovered. He told those Republicans: "Let me be very clear, there's nothing else to come out."
However, Monday evening, WTVF-TV reported newly leaked messages from 2016 showing Casada and former chief of staff Cade Cothren — then the Tennessee House Republican caucus press secretary — joking about the ages of two women and asking if they were 21 years old.
According to the text texts, Cothren responded that "it only takes 18," Casada answered "Lol!!! And true!"
Cothren resigned last week after the initial rounds of text messages were unveiled and he acknowledged using cocaine in his legislative office several years ago.
Asked if there is a racism issue in the Tennessee House, Casada replied that the texts that came out from his former chief of staff speak volumes.
"I think you can't refute what he put out," Casada said. "It pained me. It hurt me. I mean, it was like a punch to the gut when I saw that come out. We have to face that some people think the way they do. This is 2019. We've got to change that. That's nonsense."
Separately on Monday, the chairman of the House Ethics Committee met individually with members and attorneys to discuss formulating an advisory opinion requested by Casada to look into Cothren's resignation.
According to Rep. Matthew Hill, a Republican appointed to oversee the panel by Casada, the entire ethics committee was scheduled to meet Monday. But he says they postponed the gathering after realizing that such meetings require a certain amount of public notice as to when the meeting should take place.
However, under House rules, ethics committees are closed to the public when discussing advisory opinions. That means, while the public is allowed to know when the ethics committee will meet, the public is not allowed to sit in.
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