Something is happening nationally. Credible accusations of sexual harassment and worse are being considered seriously. As the culture shock of this course correction toward justice, political actors, celebrities, executives are facing a reckoning. But in the state of Tennessee, the wheels of justice are turning slow. The state is still one of 17 that give Donald Trump an approval rating of more than 50% and a state legislature who decided to give one of their own a pass.
That didn’t sit well with former congressional candidate Justin Kanew. A man who, like Trump, played himself on a reality show-running the “Amazing Race” (Season 15) with his best friend Zen Glassenberg. Now, he lives in Tennessee with his wife and two year old and he’s jumped into politics with both feet. I caught up with him shortly after a surreptitiously filmed conversation between him and TN House Speaker Glen Casada.
Video of Justin Kanew confronting Speaker Casada.
Why did this conversation draw the attention of the local paper of record and cable news network, CNN? Because Speaker Casada decided to add state representative David Byrd to the committee on education. The former high school coach has been accused by several women of sexual misconduct when he was their coach. “I can’t stand bullies or corruption,” Kanew told me. “And I think it’s time for us all to stand up for each other. It’s the same reason why I ran for congress.”
Byrd’s race in 2018 wasn’t a difficult one. He easily defeated his Democratic opponent with nearly 78% of the vote. Voters in his district were aware of the accusations against him and like other Republicans had found-it didn’t matter as long as he had an “R” next to his name. “Byrd’s victory bothered me far worse than my own loss.” Kanew said. “The idea that a guy who has apologized [on a taped phone call] for sexually molesting young girls when he was their coach got re-elected in a landslide makes me physically ill.”
But it wasn’t just Byrd winning his election. “Former Speaker Beth Harwell did the right thing and asked [Byrd] to step down.” The Current Speaker Glen Casada took a different approach. “He ran ads attacking the victims as ‘fake news’ then promoted Byrd to chair an education subcommittee of all things. That’s a direct open-handed slap in the face to the decent people of Tennessee, especially women, and sexual abuse survivors.”
For Kanew, Speaker Casada isn’t just the Speaker of the state House, “I live in Casada’s district. He represents me. I wanted to know why he did that. I went to a town hall prepared to ask him publicly, but they didn’t call on me.” The exchange may have been memorable but instead Kanew had to approach him after the event. “I had my phone in my hand recording in case he actually talked to me, which I didn’t think he would, but he did.” He rejects the idea that he was secretly filming, “It wasn’t hidden. It’s not like we were in his apartment. We’re not best buds having a pow-wow. We were at a public town hall with cameras all around. He knew who I was. If he doesn’t like what he said, that’s on him. I wasn’t sure if he knew I was recording, but I knew I was well within my rights to do it, and as soon as the conversation got going I was glad I did. Some of the stuff he said was just outrageous. I’m glad national media like CNN is finally picking up on this story, because it’s an absolute outrage and deserves all the attention it’s getting.”
I asked him what was going through his mind when Speaker Casada can be heard denying to Kanew’s face that Representative Byrd is apologizing to his former student for the abuse he allegedly perpetrated on her and others during his coaching days on a released recorded phone call. “He’s a liar. He knows. Everyone knows. This is not a ‘he said, she said’ situation. This is a ‘she said and then he admitted it on tape’ situation. I’ve heard the whole tape.” Kanew explains. “He apologizes multiple times. Says he prays for forgiveness for it every Sunday. Casada knows exactly what he’s doing, which is why I asked him how he sleeps at night. Because I genuinely don’t know how he does. What he’s doing is incredibly dark and twisted. He lied right to my face about the women coming into his office to talk to him.” Kanew points out that the alleged victims were never given an audience with the speaker. “He never talked to them. Yet he ran attack ads against them. That says it all.”
“Stand tall, speak out, stick together.” Kanew said when asked if what he would say to victims thinking about coming forward with their stories. “Things are changing, and it’s making the world a better place for the next generation of girls – like my daughter. I can’t say anything to them that will help, other than ‘thank you.’ They are the ones who deserve all the credit here.”
Kanew has a message for those who might think Byrd isn’t getting ‘due process.’ I asked him if he had a view on what makes a claim ‘credible.’ He said, “I don’t want to act like every allegation or every situation is the same. It isn’t. In this particular situation we have a taped confession. Even the statement Byrd released he doesn’t say, ‘I didn’t do this,’ probably because someone legally advised him not to deny it outright. But we all know the truth.”
“Even if the statute of limitations is up, and he won his election, that doesn’t mean Casada has to elevate him to a prominent education policy position. That’s simply unconscionable, and that isn’t just coming from me. I’ve heard from staunch Republicans who didn’t vote for me – Williamson County Republicans who know Casada well, they’re with us on this. Casada is in the wrong here, and he knows it. I won’t say every accusation should result in resignations or legal action, but every accusation should be taken seriously.” Kanew says it’s time for TN officials, especially Republicans to say where they stand. “We need to hear where you stand on having Rep. David Byrd in the legislature, and in that education committee chair position, and how you feel about Casada lying about meeting with the victims.”
Officials can’t hide from their constituents forever. “Casada ducked out of his own town hall this weekend,” Kanew told me. “Leaving Jack Johnson, Sam Whitson, and Brandon Ogles to handle a survivor’s question. I like Sam, but he got up and left, which wasn’t cool, and didn’t look good. I’m sure he didn’t enjoy that, but as long as nothing changes, that will keep happening. Not just in Williamson, but all throughout the state. Casada has shown us his true colors, but I’d like to believe there are some good people on both sides of the aisle up there in Nashville who know what the right thing is to do here. They need to ask Casada to remove Byrd from that education committee, apologize for lying about meeting with the victims and for calling them ‘fake news.’ He needs to commit to not using his PAC to attack these brave women in the future. I’d like to see Casada have Byrd removed from office entirely, but if that has to be done electorally, so be it- those other things are the absolute least he can do. This isn’t just coming from me, his own supporters feel this way too. But as long as nothing changes, they’re all going to feel the heat, and they all own this. This is what Casada and Byrd will be remembered for. It doesn’t have to be what the rest of them are remembered for also. They have a chance here to be remembered for doing the right thing. Until then they should probably expect many more uncomfortable moments.” u�?W���r��