Tennessee GOP speaker faces calls to resign after top aide steps down amid scandal

Exterior view of the Tennessee State Capitol building in Nashville

(CNN)Tennessee GOP state House Speaker Glen Casada faced calls on Tuesday to step down after his chief of staff resigned following reports that the top aide had made racist comments, sent sexually explicit messages to interns and allegedly tried to frame an activist.

Cade Cothren, Casada's former chief of staff, resigned Monday, Tennessee House GOP spokesman Doug Kufner confirmed to CNN. On Tuesday, top Democrats in the state called for the speaker to step down as well.
Casada stood by Cothren throughout many of the revelations, initially disputing reports that he and Cothren later acknowledged were partly true and vouching for his aide's character even as pressure mounted. In a radio interview on Tuesday, Casada continued to vouch for Cothren's character as he confirmed the chief of staff had resigned.
"Why he's resigning is things that he did before he turned his life around," Casada told WWTN-FM on Tuesday. The speaker also pitched the House's "bold, conservative leadership" and called his own participation in sexual and derogatory messages with Cothren "locker room talk."
    In a statement on Tuesday, Casada announced a new chief of staff, Scott Gilmer, would replace Cothren.
    A series of reports about Cothren's conduct have surfaced in Tennessee in recent days, including mention of a text he sent where he said "black people are idiots" and another where he used the N-word. The text messages were revealed in an investigative report last week from local news outlet WTVF.
    The report explored whether Cothren had tried to frame a young protester -- who took issue with Casada's approach to voting rights and keeping in place a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and KKK leader -- by altering an email and sending it to the Nashville district attorney in order to put the protester behind bars. CNN has reached out to the district attorney's office and to Cothren for comment.
    In response to the initial report, Casada stood by his chief of staff and slammed the report as "blatantly false," referencing reports that Cothren had framed the protester.
    In a subsequent report from the same outlet, Cothren admitted to past drug use in his legislative offices. For his part, Casada said Cothren had "confided" some personal issues to him years prior and had since proved himself. "I choose to believe that we all deserve a shot at redemption," the speaker said Monday in a joint statement with Cothren, according to the report.
    An article from the the Nashville Tennessean -- which also said Casada had "participated in some of the sexually charged messages objectifying women" -- reported Cothren had a history of making sexual remarks to interns, lobbyists and staffers.
    Casada told the outlet on Monday that if he had known Cothren was sending sexual messages to interns, he "would have been let go."
    "If I had known that he was interacting with interns in that manner, I probably would have sent him to rehabilitation," Casada said, according to the report.
    After he resigned, Casada thanked Cothren in a statement, according to the Nashville Tennessean.
    And, in the radio interview on WWTN-FM on Tuesday morning, Casada called his text exchanges with Cothren "base, locker room talk," echoing then-presidential candidate Donald Trump's dismissal of his own comments on the now-infamous "Access Hollywood" tape.
    "I was wrong," Casada said, adding that he had not spoken that way in recent years.
    In the interview, Casada again vouched for Cothren and called him a changed man. The speaker alleged further that the texts had come to light due to a disgruntled former employee who also received them.
      Meanwhile, the Tennessee Black Caucus called for further action, including a statement from its chairman, Democratic state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, demanding an investigation from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation into whether Cothren had falsified evidence to have a protestor jailed.
      In a statement from the state House Democratic Caucus demanding that Casada leave office, Democratic state Rep. Karen Camper said, "The actions of our speaker are unbecoming and disrespectful, not only to the citizens of our state, but to the office he holds."