Glen Casada's version of his ascendant political career is a succinct and triumphant story. In it, the state representative from Williamson County's College Grove is a devout, dedicated family man with a set of conservative core beliefs, from which he does not stray. For that, he has earned the loyalties of both voters and his party, which has rewarded him handsomely over the past decade, hoisting him to its apex — almost.
But Casada's bellicose, sometimes belligerent personality and penchant for pounding political enemies have cast him as a man who knows little mercy. He seems disinterested in the common ground slowly emerging in statehouses across a post-Gabrielle Giffords America. Whether he's starting a vile rumor about a Democratic candidate or pushing the notion that his opponent for speaker of the House is a faux-Republican, Casada appears to be most comfortable working against something. He's a prizefighter who wears brass knuckles under his gloves.
Now he's after Tennessee's cities. In the last month, Casada has filed three bills inspired by Nashville's recent advancement of a law to require city contractors to include "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" as protected classes in anti-discrimination policies. He would prefer that the state have the authority to strip local governments of their abilities to set workplace and family-leave policies, decide minimum wages, and adjudicate zoning matters for private businesses and individuals.
In short, he wants state lawmakers to dictate how Tennessee's cities will operate on certain critical matters. It's a curious position for a purported small-government conservative — except to Glen Casada.
"What we don't need is each city in this state having a different set of laws relating to a whole host of issues, from minimum wage to family leave to special discrimination and on and on," Casada tells the Scene, adding that he is seeking to create a "homogenous" climate of business regulation in Tennessee.
Music City has been the stated object of Casada's rancor ever since he attended a secret meeting of business professionals and religious leaders in January to strategize about ways to defeat the council's anti-bias bill. He denies he is targeting Nashville — his bills apply to every municipality in the state — insisting instead that, despite the flavor of cognitive dissonance, his position is philosophically consistent with the platforms that got him elected in the first place.
In the early 2000s, as the Tennessee General Assembly considered reapportioning House districts in concert with the release of new census figures, District 63 state Rep. Mike Williams realized that Williamson County had become more conservative. So had his district.
"It was obvious that my shelf life as a Democrat was probably limited," Williams says. "That's one of the reasons I went ahead and left when I did."
The others are less contextual. The Democratic representative had just won a hard-fought re-election campaign against Jeff Cassman, a right-wing businessman currently in prison awaiting trial for allegedly defrauding investors in a poorly executed Ponzi scheme. The campaign was brutal — so brutal that when Williams was offered a well-paying job as a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, he abruptly resigned from the legislature.
Cassman wanted to try again, but some Williamson County Republicans sensed the cataclysmic effect such a thing could have on their burgeoning power. Lo and behold, there was County Commissioner Casada, a hard-right conservative who'd made his name rankling fellow local officials. He had a clean-cut look, could work a room brilliantly, and was, as Williams says, an "aggressive" campaigner.
"Glen was just, he really wanted to do it," Williams says. "He really had the fire in the belly to run."
Casada beat Cassman in a special election. From there, he hopped directly onto a wave of demagoguery and corporate money that would, in comparatively short order, deliver him almost to the top of his party. A careful examination of Casada's campaign finance records traces his swift rise to party leadership.
In his 2004 campaign, according to finance records, Casada received $21,500 from various political action committees. It's a modest sum by current standards, but it accounted for 41 percent of his total draw during that election cycle. By the 2008 campaign, Casada had more than doubled that amount, pulling in $48,150 — nearly half of his total — in contributions from special interests.
Then he became Republican caucus chair, and the money rolled right in. For his next campaign, Casada received $78,425 in special interest contributions, much of them from corporations and interests outside the state. The PAC money was 55 percent of his 2010 take.
Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor of public policy at Vanderbilt University, says it's common that legislators eyeing a leadership position would raise large sums of money, particularly from interest groups, to build loyalty with lower-ranking members.
"Increasingly, it's common for people who want to move into [state] legislative leadership to raise money and then distribute a lot of that money to other candidates in their party and help them get elected as a vehicle for building ties to those members, and to show that they will be an effective leader," Oppenheimer says. Indeed, between July 1 and Oct. 23 of last year, CAS-PAC — Casada's political action committee — distributed $170,000 to various Republican candidates.
But money evidently doesn't buy trust. In 2009, as chairman of the state GOP caucus, Casada admitted to starting a rumor the year before that a Democratic candidate for the state House had been arrested multiple times on a variety of drug charges. The candidate lost by 391 votes, then sued for libel (because Knoxville Rep. Stacey Campfield had advanced it on his personal blog). That same year, Casada signed on as a co-plaintiff in a goofball lawsuit challenging President Obama's citizenship, which a judge tossed.
When the time came for Casada's moment of ascension, he was rebuffed. Beth Harwell — Nashville's moderate Republican state legislator and the first female House speaker in Tennessee history — eked out her victory in the opening days of the 107th General Assembly, and Casada was back on the outside.
The three Nashville bills — along with a bandwagon initiative to strip teachers unions of collective bargaining powers — are Casada's raison d'état. He tells the Scene that each level of government should be responsible for certain matters of general policy. For example, the feds should "secure the borders" — Tea Party-speak for cracking down hard on illegal immigration. Municipalities should make "traffic laws" and determine how local elections will proceed. And the state, he contends, should set up a "homogenous" environment for businesses to make money.
That includes taking away cities' power to set their own minimum wage — one provision tucked into his Tennessee Intrastate Commerce Act of 2011, a cornerstone of his push to create a Volunteer State variation on the European Union.
"A bill like this [minimum-wage bill] is mind-boggling," says At-large Metro Councilwoman Megan Barry, who sponsored the city's living wage ordinance. "Tennessee conservatives who demonize federal mandates on the states are themselves pushing a state law that would tie local government's hands — and all in the name of making sure working people's wages stay as low as possible. This is the state GOP's idea of a job-related legislative agenda: poverty-level wages, now and forever, with no local remedy."
Councilman Mike Jameson, a co-sponsor of the nondiscrimination ordinance, says Casada's bills could set a dangerous precedent.
"Cities have local problems and local issues that require local attention," he says. "Everything from zoning matters to personnel and procurement policies. You can't effectively respond to those problems with a paint-by-numbers approach. If we're limited to whatever one-size-fits-all legislation Casada approves of, we'll be substantially less effective.
"And frankly, you'd be hard-pressed to find many Tennessee mayors and city council members who ran for office just so they could rubber stamp state-sanctioned legislation."
For additional reporting, see www.nashvillescene.com and the Scene's blog Pith in the Wind.
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