New House Speaker Cameron Sexton highlights upcoming agenda

BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

When Tennessee’s General Assembly returned to session on Jan. 14, East Tennessee native Cameron Sexton picked up the gavel as the 83rd Speaker of the House.
The Crossville-based Republican is the son of two teachers and grew up in Knoxville, Kingston, and Oak Ridge, where he played on the Oak Ridge High School basketball team and graduated in 1989.
Sexton attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, graduating in 1994. That same year he got his first taste of politics, working on the State Senate campaign for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally. The two have maintained a close friendship ever since and now will be working side-by-side in the Legislature.
“I have known Cameron Sexton for many years,” McNally said upon Sexton’s selection as Speaker of the House. “I have observed him serve our state with great distinction. Cameron has the experience, the temperament, and the ability to lead the Tennessee House of Representatives to new heights.”
After working on McNally’s campaign, Sexton took a position working for the state in Memphis. In 1998, he made the move to Crosville to work for then U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary. He has lived in Crosville ever since.
In 2010, he was elected to represent State House District 25, representing Cumberland and Van Buren Counties as well as the city of Monterey in Putnam County.
During his tenure in the House, Sexton has held several leadership roles including House Majority Whip and Majority Caucus Chairman. Former Speaker of the House Beth Harwell also appointed him chair of the House Health Committee and as chairman of the Three-Star Healthy Taskforce, which worked to find innovative approaches to covering healthcare while still being cost-efficient.
Sexton’s wife Lacey is a pharmacist, and they have three children – Greer, Olivia, and Nathanial – who are known to occasionally come to work at the State Capitol with their father.

TT&C: Who would you say are your biggest influences?
Cameron Sexton: I have to go with my family, my parents and my brother obviously. I still get a lot of advice from my older brother who is an attorney in Knoxville. When I was in college, I worked for a pharmacist named John Karnes who had a big influence on me early on. He provided a lot of great advice about responsibility and accountability. I worked at his drug store all through college.
After working on Randy McNally’s campaign in 1994, I worked on Van Hilleary’s campaign. Van Hilleary taught me a lot about constituents and constituent services and campaigning. Randy McNally has also been a consistent figure in my life from high school up until now. He’s probably the only person I work with who has known me consistently for three decades.
I have learned a lot from a lot of people. I’m more of a listener than a talker, so I try to listen. I’ve had a lot of managers and bosses over the years that I’ve listened to and learned a lot from.

TT&C: What first sparked your interest in politics?
CS: When I graduated from the University of Tennessee, I was trying to find a job. I had gone to Oak Ridge High School, and during that time I knew then-State. Sen. Randy McNally. That year Randy was starting to run his campaign, and he was up for re-election in 1994. I met with him, and he was looking to hire someone. He hired me, and that was my entry into campaigns.
I had played sports throughout my life, and am a competitive person. The campaign was a lot like sports and encompassed a little bit of everything I had learned in college. You learn a lot about wordsmithing, about advertising and marketing, about sign locations, and issues. You get to meet people. I remember every Friday night I would go to the high school football game and hand out Randy McNally cards to everyone walking in.

TT&C: What is it like working with him now as Speaker? Has he given you any advice on stepping into your new role?
CS: When I was elected back in November 2010, I had the opportunity to serve with Randy– which I would have never thought was possible because I never thought I would run for office. It was great being able to serve with him in the Legislature, and it’s even better to be able to work alongside him as Speaker of the House. Randy has been a great mentor, and he has a lot of experience and knowledge. Ever since I began in the General Assembly we have been very close and worked with one another on very complicated issues. We communicate very effectively with one another.

TT&C: What do you feel are the important characteristics of a good leader?
CS: I think a good leader has vision. They see where things need to go potentially in the future, but they also work with people to come up with that vision. A good leader is not only effective in today’s work but also leading us into tomorrow’s. Being a good communicator – which I think involves listening not just talking – is important. A good leader is one who doesn’t always have to get the credit. As Speaker, my role is not to outshine the members but to let the members shine – to let them be as successful as they can, and to let them take the credit for the great things we are doing.

TT&C: Politics on both the state and national level seem to be more divisive than ever. How do you bring lawmakers from both sides of the aisle together in the House?
CS: One of the things I learned when I was running for Speaker was that even people I had known for seven or eight years while I was in the General Assembly I didn’t really know. We were always talking about policy or the state of Tennessee and the General Assembly.
I think part of the problem with Washington politics and politics in general sometimes, is that when you have disagreements it can be a different disagreement if you don’t know the person. You can hold that grudge a whole lot longer than if you had a relationship with them that was more like that of a friend, even if you disagree ideologically.
One of the things that we have done is try to do service projects as a body outside of Nashville, to give back to the community. The goal is to try to get the body outside of Nashville working together. For one, it shows that we are public servants, and we are there working for the best interest of Tennessee. It also helps us build relationships with one another and learn more about one another than what we know in Nashville.

TT&C: What is your stance on pre-emption and local control?
CS: I know we have had some issues in the past. What I will say is the state constitution allows the state government to have oversight over local governments. A lot of it is sitting down together and working through things together. I understand that sometimes constituents will reach out or there will be issues that pop up that may require pre-emption or not.
For the most part, it isn’t a vast majority of municipalities but rather a few that there are issues with. We have state laws that if the majority vote on it and it passes that is because their constituents want it. It would be nice to work with all forms of government in the state of Tennessee to make sure we are all on the same page, but sometimes we do pass things in the General Assembly that people aren’t happy with.
Whether I agree with a federal law, a state law, or a local ordinance, I don’t get to pick and choose which ones I follow or don’t follow based on whether or not I like them. Part of the pre-emption problems over the years have been sometimes not liking a certain state law or trying to overturn a state law. Those have been issues, and hopefully if those issues come up we can sit down and have a conversation and not get to the escalation we have had in the past.

TT&C: What is your relationship like with the municipal officials in your district? What are some of the ways you have worked with them in the past on either state or local issues?
CS: I think the relationship is good, and I have always worked well with the city mayors and county mayors. I see my role for them as an additional hand. I don’t try to interject myself into their issues unless they ask me to come help. I think that Sen. [Paul] Bailey, [R-Sparta], and I work very well in our district. We both approach it in the same way, so we have a good relationship.

TT&C: What are some of your priorities as Speaker and for the legislative session?
CS: In August, we reassigned the committees. I wanted to make sure that members with different assets and skill sets were on committees where they can be successful which will help make better policy. I think every single member of the General Assembly serves on four committees now. In the past it was only two or three. By serving on four committees they have a broader overview, which helps us with institutional knowledge.
Looking at legislation coming up, I think there is a lot we can do in terms of healthcare. Criminal justice reform is coming. The governor has proposed some changes, and we have started talking with our chairs and stakeholders about ideas we would like to see. We will see if those mirror with the administration’s proposals. There is also a lot of legislation that focuses on education and vocational education that is moving forward.
When we went to New York recently and participated in the bond rating hearing, the state is in a very good financial place. We need to make sure that our budget continues to be fiscally sound and we continue to make wise decisions that will keep us on that path.

TT&C: How do we keep up the state’s positive momentum in education? What education issues does the state still face and how can we address them?
CS: We have done a lot of great things on accountability and putting a lot more resources into K-12 education. The GIVE Act this year which gives $25 million to vocational education is a great start. When you travel around the state and visit the TCATS, what they are doing is amazing.
For a lot of years, a lot of people have felt you have to go to a four-year college to be successful in life, but that isn’t always the case. You can get a certificate in plumbing, electrical line work, or diesel mechanics and make very good money straight out of high school and live a good life.
I think one of the biggest things we need to focus on is our grade-level reading efficiency. I have been visiting cities and counties throughout the state over the past months, and our efficiency is nowhere near where it needs to be. If you can’t read, it’s hard to do math and really hard to do anything. One of the things I want to work on with the committee chairs is having a plan for where we want to be in five years based on what works and what hasn’t worked.

TT&C: Gov. Bill Lee has put an emphasis on rural economic and community development. How is the legislature working to help with this, particularly for the state’s most distressed areas?
CS: In my area of the Cumberland Plateau, you have counties and local chambers of commerce forming alliances. You have the Highland Initiative on the Upper Cumberland area. These groups are working together for the benefit of all communities, because if something comes in to one community it’s a benefit for them all.
As far as the state, one of the things I will say is one of the biggest drivers – whether you’re in a rural area of Tennessee, an Appalachian area of Tennessee, or even an inner-city metropolitan area – is how much poverty plays into distressed areas and how many different areas poverty touches like criminal justice reform, education, healthcare, and opioids and drug abuse. I think we need to do a better job of moving people out of poverty and giving them opportunities to be successful.

TT&C: Especially with the recent closures of rural hospitals across the state, many Tennesseans are concerned about healthcare and the ability to access it close to home. In what ways do you plan to address these issues?
CS: The No. 1 issue for hospitals in Tennessee is the Medicare Wage Index. We are disproportionately reimbursed when compared to high-cost states. That’s one of the things that needs to be fixed in Washington.
As far as access in different parts of Tennessee and rural areas, we need to look at laws that require government approval for people who want to put healthcare services in certain parts of our state. We need to look to see if there are reforms that need to be in place that would open up these areas.
The second thing is telemedicine and telehealth. We need to figure out how to make reimbursement a priority or how to ease up requirements for those who want to do it, and change some of the definitions that are limiting the use of telemedicine. In a rural area, if you don’t have the same access to healthcare you have to take a full day off work to go to and from the doctor. We need to keep in mind that there are indirect costs not only to the consumer but also to the employer.
The third thing I will say – because I could go on for a longtime on healthcare – is to try and give consumers transparency on cost. It is very hard to control cost or have a competitive marketplace if very few people know what things cost. We are trying to work on a small-payer’s claim database, which will help consumers research and be able to see what an average cost would be for various procedures they may have based on where they live, the insurance they have, and a lot of factors.

TT&C: How will the legislature continue to address the opioid crisis and what results have been seen from recent legislation like TN Together?
CS: If you look at the overdose deaths, the number of prescription opioid overdose deaths have decreased. The number of prescriptions for morphine and opioids has decreased anywhere from 35 to 50% in the past 12 months. The issue in Tennessee isn’t so much prescription opioids now as much as it is fentanyl. You have marijuana laced with fentanyl or maybe cocaine laced with fentanyl, and fentanyl is so strong that even a little can kill you.
Sheriffs and police officers 20 years ago were focused on meth and labs where it was produced. It moved into prescription opioids and now it’s moving into heroin. We can always make reforms based on what drug is being used at the time, but you have to understand all they are going to do is change drugs. A lot of people think the problem is the drug, but if you ask me, the problem is the people.
What we need to do is put more money into behavioral health and mental health for substance abuse. We need to attack this on the front end, and realize that people don’t need to be treated for these addictions for 60 days. They need treatment for two years. If we don’t do it on the front end, we are going to be paying for it on the backend like we are now.

TT&C: What are the pieces of legislation you have worked on that have meant the most to you and why?
CS: About half of my legislation comes from my district. People at home always have great ideas and issues that they come across. All of those pieces have been wonderful. I did the ridesharing bill a few years ago that was an interesting piece of legislation. Lt. Gov. McNally and I did some legislation on opioids and pain clinics over the course of our time together, which I think has helped as well.

TT&C: You often bring your kids to the state house and have encouraged other lawmakers to bring their children as well. Why do you feel this is important for both lawmakers and children?
CS: I think it is important for us to understand there is life outside of politics. I also want people to feel like the Capitol is a place they can bring their kids and families. As far as the historical value and as far as civics go, it’s very beneficial for everyone. I hope that more members will do it. You see more and more kids coming down, and I think it’s great that when the kids visit, they develop friendships with each other and in turn legislators develop friendships. You move away from being cohorts to being friends.

TT&C: If, years from now, one of your children came to you and said they wanted to run for office, what advice would you give them?
CS: It’s all about timing. I would ask if this was the right time in their life or if this is the right opportunity. I would ask if they are committed to doing it, and why they wanted to run. It may seem like a simple question, but it’s actually very complex. I think everyone who has a desire to run for public office should run. I would never tell anybody not to run for office, but I would want to make sure it is the right time in their life for them.