Gov. Bill Lee used his honeymoon with Tennessee’s legislature to steer a controversial education voucher proposal into the law books, but their relationship may be less cozy with a leadership change in the House of Representatives, even under a Republican supermajority.

The House overwhelmingly elected Rep. Cameron Sexton on Friday as its speaker to replace Glen Casada, who stepped down earlier this month. While both men are party loyalists, Sexton voted against the voucher bill that Casada strong-armed through the chamber before a series of scandals rocked him out of his leadership job.

A banking executive from Crossville in East Tennessee, Sexton has signaled he’ll use his gavel to set a different tone from his predecessor. After the majority caucus voted last month to support his ascendancy to the House’s top leadership job, Sexton promised he would never hand committee leaders “kill lists” of bills to snuff out, as Casada did.

Casada rubbed many representatives the wrong way by micro-managing committee work. He bent over backwards to deliver a voucher victory to Lee, who had campaigned for more education choices and proposed to let some families use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition. And when a tie vote appeared to doom the controversial proposal on the floor of the House this spring, the Franklin Republican held the voting board open for 38 minutes to convince one opposing lawmaker to change his mind.

Sexton has said he wouldn’t have used that parliamentary maneuver in presiding over the lawmaking body that helps to set policies affecting students, teachers, and schools. He’s not thrilled with the governor’s plan to launch the voucher program a year earlier than required by law. And he’s unruffled by legislative talk by some to try to repeal the law next year.

If such a bill is filed, “it would be up to committees whether to pass it on,” Sexton told Chalkbeat this week. “Members have that right, and there may even be a lawsuit or two about the law. We’ll just have to wait and see what avenues are pursued.”

Sexton, 48, is seen as a pragmatic conservative who will be more open than Casada to hearing opposing points of view. He says he’ll allow robust debate on controversial matters, as long as legislators stay on point and maintain a spirit of decorum and civility. And when discussing his new governmental responsibilities, he brings up the constitutional principle of checks and balances.

“As speaker, my job will be to run an effective, efficient, and orderly House and keep in mind that there are three branches of government for a reason,” he said. “I want to make sure we maintain that we are an independent branch of government with our ideas. A lot of times, they will line up with the governor and his administration but, when they don’t, we have to be willing to sit down and come up with a different path.”

Sexton has strong ties to public education. He attended schools in Knox County before graduating in 1989 from Oak Ridge High School in neighboring Anderson County, where he had access to foreign languages, advanced placement courses, and early college credits before heading to the University of Tennessee. His mother was a kindergarten teacher for more than 30 years, and his grandfather was a principal. He and his wife, Lacey, have chosen public schools for their own children.

That family history, he said, was likely a factor behind his consistent votes against voucher bills, but he cites philosophical reasons, too. 

“We should do everything we can to improve all public schools in the state of Tennessee so they can be successful,” he said. “I would rather go that route than the voucher route.”

Sexton has fans within Tennessee’s teacher organizations and on both sides of the legislative aisle.

“I like him,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, education committee member, and critic of the governor’s voucher program. “He seems to be a pretty fair guy, and I hope he can make the focus on people and not partisanship. We’ll see.”

Sexton speaks on the floor of the House of Representatives, where he served as Republican caucus chairman in 2019.

Rep. Bill Dunn, who co-sponsored the voucher bill and served as interim speaker until Friday’s election, is impressed so far with Sexton’s leadership style. “I think he’s got both the political and policy skills to be successful,” said the Knoxville Republican.

A one-time staffer to former U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary of West Tennessee, Sexton was first elected to the House in 2009 and is in the middle of his fifth term of representing Cumberland and Van Buren counties, as well as the town of Monterey in Putnam County.

His primary legislative expertise is health care, having chaired the House’s powerful health committee for four years and honed his leadership style there.

“He’s very thoughtful — not impulsive — and I like that,” said Rep. Mark White, the Memphis Republican who chairs the House Education Committee. “I think he proved with his [voucher] votes that he’s an independent thinker. He will lead well, and I expect that he’ll let the education committee be the education committee.”

Since Sexton was tapped to lead the House, his conversations with the governor have focused mostly on philosophies of health care and criminal justice reform, not education, the speaker-elect said. He foresees a good working relationship with the popular new governor, a Williamson County businessman who cruised to victory during last year’s elections.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Lee interacts with students at McKissack Middle School in Nashville.

“He’s a very nice guy,” Sexton said of Lee, noting the challenges of any first-year governor to quickly assemble a cabinet, build a budget, and develop a legislative agenda. “Hopefully this next year things will calm down and not be as action-packed for this administration. One thing I’d like to do as speaker is to include my committee chairmen in policy discussions with the governor because I think it’s important to have those people at the table.”

As for education, Sexton is keeping an eye on a major funding lawsuit filed against the state by districts in Memphis and Nashville, while his constituents along the Cumberland Plateau talk with him about more immediate concerns like testing capacity, teacher pay, textbooks, and attendance policies.

“He is always willing to listen,” said Janet Graham, director of the Cumberland County School District.

You can livestream all legislative meetings here.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with Sexton’s election. The vote was 94-0, with two abstentions.