By KIMBERLEE KRUESI Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Republican Tennessee House speaker’s chief of staff resigned Monday amid allegations that he sent sexually explicit and racist text messages, and after admitting he used cocaine inside a legislative office building when he held a previous job.
Cade Cothren stepped down late Monday, House Speaker Glen Casada said in a text message to The Associated Press.
The resignation, which Casada said was effective immediately, comes at a time when at least four other Tennessee lawmakers have faced high-profile sexual misconduct allegations.
House Democrats have since called for Casada to step down as speaker.
“Citizens of the state of Tennessee deserve to have a speaker that they can trust; whose character and moral standards are beyond reproach,” said House Minority Leader Karen Camper, in a statement. “The actions of our speaker are unbecoming and disrespectful, not only to the citizens of our state, but to the office he holds.”
Separately, the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators called on state officials to investigate Cothren following allegations he may have tampered with evidence by making it look like student activist Justin Jones sent an email to Casada in violation of his bond conditions after his arrest in February during protests at Casada’s office.
Cothren, who earned nearly $200,000 a year, told news outlets the best thing for Tennessee was for him to step down so that he would not be a distraction to House and Senate Republicans. He became Casada’s chief of staff this year, and at age 32, was the youngest person to serve in the role in decades.
He resigned just hours after news outlets reported he and his boss had exchanged sexually explicit comments about women. First revealed in The Tennessean, the reports also alleged Cothren sent sexually explicit messages to and made “inappropriate” advances toward former interns, lobbyists and campaign staffers between 2014 and 2016.
The newspaper said the text messages between Casada and Cothren did not involve the former interns. The report did not say if they involved the lobbyists or campaign staffers. Other news reports surfaced Monday alleging that Cothren sent racist texts and used drugs.
Cothren released several statements Monday as the allegations surfaced, first admitting to using cocaine in a legislative office building when he was press secretary for the Tennessee House Republican Caucus several years ago. The Tennessean also quoted him as saying that he admitted making “derogatory” comments about women in the past.
He did not respond definitively, however, to allegations that he had sent texts using a racial slur and calling black people idiots. He told the AP that all of the accusations “are years old” and that he did some things in the past that he was “not proud of.”
WTVF-TV was the first to report on the alleged racist text messages, last week. The station reported the drug use on Monday.
Regarding the drug use, Cothren said in a joint statement with Casada that because of intense pressure and high expectations during his career, he “unfortunately turned to maladaptive coping mechanisms.”
“Like so many young, egotistical men aspiring to a career in politics that came before me, moving up the career ladder was met with unrelenting stress, peer pressure, and unrealistic expectations. I know that this is not an excuse,” Cothren said.
In the statement, Casada said Cothren told him of the drug use nearly three years ago, and that he decided then to give his aide another chance.
“Politics has become a game of ‘gotcha’ with no thought of forgiveness and starting anew. I choose to believe that we all deserve a shot at redemption,” he said. “I gave Mr. Cothren this chance to prove himself, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”
After the reports of the sexually explicit texts emerged, however, Casada said that he would have to “re-evaluate” his previous position.
Cothren is not the first person in Tennessee political circles to face allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women. In 2018, news outlets reported that three women had accused Republican Rep. David Byrd of sexual misconduct when he was their high school basketball coach several decades ago. Two women alleged Byrd inappropriately touched them. The third said Byrd tried to.
Byrd has not outright denied the allegations since they were first reported nearly a year ago, but has said he’s truly sorry if he hurt or emotionally upset any of his students.
Casada, who was running for speaker at the time, rushed to defend Byrd during his 2018 reelection campaign. Casada released digital ads comparing the scrutiny Byrd was under to that given to U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and President Donald Trump.
And like Trump, he claimed that Byrd had been the victim of “fake news” generated by liberals. Meanwhile, former House Speaker Beth Harwell and current Senate Speaker Randy McNally, both Republicans, called for Byrd to resign.
In March, after protesters and victim’s advocates held multiple demonstrations objecting to Byrd serving in a leadership position, Casada asked him to resign as chairman of an education subcommittee.
Earlier this month, Democratic Rep. Rick Staples resigned from his leadership position after a House ethics panel concluded he violated the General Assembly’s sexual harassment policy.
Additionally, former Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham was expelled from the House in 2016 after an attorney general’s investigation outlined allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women during his four years in office. Former Republican Rep. Mark Lovell resigned in February 2017 after a woman accused him of inappropriate touching at a legislative event.
This story has been edited to correct Cothren’s age to 32.