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VOL. 40 | NO. 4 | Friday, January 22, 2016

Still-persecuted Durham surrenders leadership post

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Rep. Jeremy Durham and his wife, Dr. Jessica Durham, walk past protesters advocating for the passage of Medicaid expansion on the opening day of the second session of the 109th General Assembly.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

The boys in the newsroom had a running bet on whether the reasons for “media persecution” of Rep. Jeremy Durham had little, if anything, to do with a spate of revelations about his odd behavior over the last few years.

It turns out they were right.

After a few hours of waffling with House Republican leadership, Durham resigned his post Sunday evening as majority whip, according to The Tennessean, after the newspaper reported anonymous allegations by three women who work at the Legislature he sent them inappropriate text messages.

The Franklin Republican will keep his House seat.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada confirmed an initial statement sent out about Durham’s resignation from the leadership post wasn’t what he wanted to say, so he sent out another statement.

Casada, a Franklin Republican who recommended Durham for the leadership job, said he had spoken with him throughout the day.

Asked if Durham’s resignation stems from sexual harassment allegations, Casada stated:

“My recommendation to him was because of the divisiveness of the news and the situation it puts him and the caucus in, it was best for him and for the caucus for him to give up his seat. I thanked him for his service.”

He then added: “And I just think it shows maturity on his part.”

Maturity?

Throughout this Durham debacle, he’s shown only a hint of contrition, instead blaming the “liberal media” for his plight.

This column previously reported – tongue in cheek – the “liberal media’s” treatment of Durham over the last month was inhumane and unfair.

You’d have thought he killed somebody, or at least carjacked someone in Brentwood. The poor guy’s just been treated badly.

From the looks of things, he never got a break in his entire life.

Well, unless you consider how he wriggled out of odd incidents such as a 2003 burglary arrest in Knoxville while attending UT-Knoxville and drug task force allegations of prescription fraud.

Charges were dropped in connection with the break-in, which had to do with a former girlfriend and her new boyfriend. And Durham persuaded a Williamson County grand jury not to indict him a couple of years ago for allegedly altering prescription dates, according to Associated Press reports.

Nobody really looked into those matters until the “liberal media” found out he also wrote a character reference letter on behalf of a former youth pastor found guilty on federal charges of child porn possession and statutory rape.

He was criticized roundly for that by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell and others who felt it unbecoming for someone in a legislative leadership position.

Durham looked to be getting another pass as the Legislature opened for business when the House Republican Caucus, in a meeting closed to the media and public, opted to keep him as whip, a person responsible for rounding up financial support during an election year.

It was a resounding start to the legislative session.

Before media were unceremoniously bounced from the room the day of the secret vote, Durham sat by his wife – who apparently was standing by her man – his lips either trembling or saying a silent prayer.

Rep. Sheila Butt, who doesn’t understand why people would be interested in such matters, called for a private meeting. A request to keep it open by Rep. Jon Lundberg failed miserably, a good sign for Durham early in the proceedings.

Durham kept the post that day, not after a thorough discussion about his alleged behavior but after a lengthy debate about caucus rules which came down to a vote on whether to suspend the group’s rules and hold another election to consider replacing him. Of course, they needed two-thirds of the caucus to vote to suspend the rules and fell one vote short.

But even after they narrowly allowed him to keep his leadership job, House Republicans vanished, with not so much as a caucus staffer hanging around to save him from the vultures circling outside the room (Really, they were only tweeting, which is what reporters do these days whether they’re bored or not).

Media were ready to swoop in, too, especially after being booted from the meeting for no good reason and irritated by the wait. Durham gave them plenty of ammunition for future battles, and apparently The Tennessean reporters were all too happy to accept the fight.

Asked why he felt it was important to continue as whip, Durham said, “Part of it was because I didn’t want to let the liberal media to win. I mean I just thought they were extremely unfair in The Tennessean, and I didn’t think that was very fair.

“I think if one rolls over and people continue to do things like that, then they’ll go after other people. And I felt like the forces of good were on our side.”

In these impromptu press conferences, reporters always compete for the next question, and one asked loudly, “Did the liberal media write the letter on behalf of the child porn offender? Did the liberal media investigate you for prescription fraud?”

Durham didn’t answer either one, instead contending the people in his caucus know him better than anyone in the media and voted to keep him.

He showed slight repentance.

“It’s been a very humbling experience. I’m not sitting here saying I’ve approached every single situation in the best way. I’m definitely not here saying that. But everything’s a learning process, you know. I’ll take the criticism, I’ll go forward and I’ll just represent my district,” he says.

But whether he told the truth about discussions with Connie Ridley of the Legislative Administration office, which handles human resource issues, is doubtful. He calls a meeting with her short and low key and claims he didn’t know what she was talking about.

In other reports, Ridley characterized the meeting with Durham quite differently than he did.

Ridley says she didn’t speak to him about any “specific event” or “instance” but says she went to see him because of “the fact I was getting pretty significant feedback about his behavior.” In fact, Harwell had asked her to talk to Durham about “appropriate” behavior.

When asked whether she spoke to him about his actions with interns, Ridley declined to answer the question directly.

Backing from a friend

Earlier in the session’s first day, several hours before the caucus meeting, state Sen. Brian Kelsey predicted Durham would “survive” and keep his whip post.

“I think that his colleagues will see through a personal attack on him for his strong stand against Obamacare,” says Kelsey, who was the best man in Durham’s wedding.

Asked if he thought it was a media attack or came from within the Republican Party, Kelsey, a Germantown Republican, says, “It was clearly instigated by the liberal media, who is in favor of expanding Obamacare in Tennessee.”

Kelsey points out Durham sponsored the legislation in the House requiring a legislative vote on Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan. The General Assembly had asked Haslam to come up with a proposal to provide more people with a Tennessee plan after the Affordable Care Act passed Congress.

Of course, neither the media nor the Senate Republican Caucus went after Kelsey, who sponsored the measure in the Senate. Maybe they couldn’t find anything to make him look bad.

Asked if thought the media came after him because of his stance on Insure Tennessee, Durham didn’t want to go into it. But when told Kelsey made the comment, he says, “It’s possible, but my message is very clear: Let’s talk about issues that Tennesseans care about. I don’t think they want to, you know, just have a kangaroo court. I think they want us to focus on real issues. And my goal is to just start focusing on things people in my district are telling me to bring forward.”

But while only a handful of Tennesseans care who serves as majority whip in the House of Representatives, people are concerned about Insure Tennessee, prescription fraud and child predators.

They’re probably more worried about those than a legislator behaving badly with women, which is accepted in some camps. If memory serves correctly, we’ve had several presidents of the United States who misbehaved with women while in office.

But regardless of their problems, Durham should have resigned long before this hit the news. Even with his departure, the issue has long legs because House Speaker Harwell says she plans to look into a stronger sexual harassment policy.

And, some people doubt seriously texting women late at night isn’t Durham’s only deal.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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