Tennessee lawmakers picked their leaders and gaveled in for a legislative session Tuesday, kicking off a new year of work with a booming freshman class and a new governor about to take office.
Beyond the first day’s standard ceremonial and procedural events, the House GOP also moved to close some future caucus meetings from the news media.
“It’s not a secret meeting. It’s a closed meeting,” said House Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton, a Republican from Crossville, while announcing the change to reporters.
Republicans have a supermajority control inside the Tennessee General Assembly. Supporters of closed caucus meetings argue they are crucial for members to have frank discussions about legislative actions, but open government advocates counter they are a way for a large chunk of public policy to be decided outside of public view.
“We’ll always have press availability after,” Sexton said, adding he plans on the majority of the caucus meetings to be open during the session.
Tuesday’s main event, however, was the swearing in of House and Senate members voted in last election and lawmakers casting their formal votes to elect speakers to lead their Republican-dominated chambers.
Rep. Glen Casada will take over for former Rep. Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Randy McNally kept his post for a second two-year term. Republican caucuses of both chambers had already voted to nominate Casada and McNally for the leadership jobs.
“If a man can be measured by how much he is loved, I would be a wealthy man,” Casada said during a brief speech where he thanked the House for nominating him to the top legislative seat.
Eight years ago, Harwell, 61, made Tennessee history by becoming the state’s first female House speaker. She is leaving office after 30 years serving in the House after she retired to unsuccessfully run for governor in the 2018 Republican primary.
Both Harwell and Casada said they had tears in their eyes when she passed the gavel over to him.
“On a personal note, may I extend my congratulations to each and every one of you, serve your constituents well and respect this institution,” Harwell said.
Outside, a handful of protesters gathered urging Casada to call on Republican Rep. David Byrd to resign.
Byrd has been accused of sexual misconduct by three women when he was their high school basketball coach decades ago. Casada defended Byrd during the general election, comparing Byrd’s scrutiny to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and President Donald Trump.
“In Tennessee, in America, you have a right to be wrong,” Casada said in response to the protest. “You have a right to protest and they’re welcome to protest.”
The session is expected to last several months, and Republican Gov.-elect Bill Lee still needs to take office during his inauguration on Jan. 19. He replaces term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.