Photo: Daniel Meigs
In Williamson County politics, Glen Casada looms large.
He’s not just a member of the state House of Representatives — a post he’s held for the better part of two decades. He also rode a Republican wave in the 2010s to supermajority status, and eventually rose to the speaker’s chair.
And Casada’s not just a conservative. He’s among the party’s most combative figures, freely injecting some of the right’s biggest fever dreams into Tennessee politics with ease. He sued Barack Obama shortly after the president took the oath of office in 2009, claiming Obama was born in Kenya and, even if he wasn’t, he abandoned his citizenship by spending time in Indonesia as a kid. Casada also called for Syrian refugees in Tennessee to be rounded up and returned to ICE officials because he saw them as a terror threat.
And even when he was forced by his own caucus to abandon the speaker’s gavel in 2019, Casada refused to abandon his seat. It didn’t matter that his chief of staff had been caught soliciting sex from an intern and a lobbyist in explicit texts, or that he had hired a political operative for a no-show job on the House payroll. Casada just waited until the fury died down and announced his intention to run again early this year. Most voters never batted an eye.
So what type of district keeps returning such a polarizing figure to office year after year? Tennessee’s House District 63 runs from Brentwood south to the Maury County line, and from the east side of Franklin to Arrington. It’s one of the most affluent and fastest-growing areas in the state, and it’s full of voters with a certain profile: largely white, evangelical, upper-middle-class, college-educated, and many of them with a single issue on their minds when they enter the voting booth.
In short, they look a lot like Casada’s opponent, Elizabeth Madeira.
“I grew up in a conservative, evangelical home,” Madeira tells the Scene as a neighbor’s cat wanders over and plops down next to her. “A lot of times those things go together. I probably, even at some point, considered myself a one-issue voter on pro-life issues.”
Madeira graduated from Belmont, fell in love and married a church music director. They started a family. She taught Spanish at Battle Ground Academy. In an alternate universe, there might be a version of Madeira that continued to fit the Republican profile typical in Williamson County — political inertia can be strong, and often it takes a catalyst to shift someone’s beliefs. For her, the catalyst came on Dec. 14, 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., with a Bushmaster rifle and killed 26 people, including 20 students.
“I was a teacher and a new mom with a 6-month-old,” Madeira says. “And when it happened, of course — like everybody — I was devastated and sad and then also terrified. It just seemed really scary that something like that could happen where I taught, or in my kid’s school, or in our community. And watching the fallout of that and seeing … I thought for sure after that event there would be national or statewide common-sense gun legislation. Like universal background checks, to me, is something that seems common-sense. But it seemed like so many representatives — even the ones that I had voted for, a lot of Republicans — [blocked] any kind of common-sense reform because they were paying more attention to special interests and the NRA, instead of keeping our community safe. My first thought really was, ‘But that doesn’t really seem pro-life,’ right? So then I just started paying a lot more attention and realized that my values, my Christian values of loving your neighbor as yourself and taking care of the least of these, aligned more with the Democratic party. And I think by the time Donald Trump was nominated in 2016, that really cemented that for me, because I felt like he represented so much of the opposite of what I had learned to value as a Christian.”
When listening to Madeira channel a lot of her politics through her faith, it becomes easy to see just how skewed the perceptions of party and religious affiliation have become. Because Republicans — particularly Tennessee Republicans — often express policy objectives through a Judeo-Christian lens, it’s easy to internalize a caricature of Democrats as being secular.
But for Madeira, affordable health care and Medicaid expansion have their roots in her religious beliefs, and supporting public education has a personal, moral dimension. It’s hard to label a Sunday school director as just another godless liberal.
“I think that a lot of times, especially in the South, the Republican Party wants to paint Democrats as people that are not people of faith and are not Christians, but that’s not true,” she says. “It is, in part, my Christian faith that guides me to support the least among us. And that supports loving your neighbor as yourself. That’s what guides me in a lot of my policy-making, just making sure that people are taken care of in their communities.”
That jibes with what Madeira calls a need for “greater transparency and integrity” in the state legislature — a not-so-subtle allusion to Casada. In July, the former speaker was sanctioned by the Registry of Election Finance after an audit found problems with more than $125,000 in funds from both his campaign and personal political action committee accounts. The registry fined Casada $10,500, which he paid out of his PAC. The move is apparently legal, but it had Madeira shaking her head at the ethics of it all.
“Well, I think it shows how embedded he is in the system of politics and how much special-interest money he has and just points out how much he’s a career politician,” she says. Her campaign has raised more than $125,000, almost entirely from individuals. Casada still has more than $300,000 in his campaign account, amassed over a few cycles with minimal opposition and maximum influence. His CAS-PAC reported almost $175,000 cash on hand even after paying the registry fine.
After not acknowledging Madeira or Brad Fiscus, an independent who is also running, Casada began dipping into that war chest with a Facebook ad buy beginning in October. The ad claimed, “My radical Democrat opponents continue to launch attacks against me based on complete lies.” A concurrent mailer from the state GOP calls Madeira a socialist with no explanation.
It’s been an odd few months, with COVID-19 limiting candidates’ ability to do much retail campaigning. Since declaring her candidacy in April, Madeira’s outreach has been a mix of phone banks, virtual events and YouTube ads featuring her husband and three young kids. And while she and Williamson County Democrats braced for a bigger attack in the weeks before the election, she has been running online ads reminding voters of Casada’s misdeeds.
“I think there’s a lot of people that maybe were aware last year and have forgotten — I mean, we’ve had a thousand news cycles since then,” she says, referencing the news overload that many seem to be feeling in the middle of the pandemic. “There’s no need to spin anything. All we have to do is present people with the facts that happened, and for them to see what he did, and to see that there’s somebody who would not talk like that in text messages, or who would not tolerate that kind of inappropriate behavior from their staff.”
Will that be enough to reach the very Republican voters in District 63 and make the race competitive? Madeira thinks so. After all, she used to be one of them.