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VOL. 40 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 5, 2016

Only so much Durham could blame on media

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It’s little wonder state Rep. Jeremy Durham had to take a two-week break from the General Assembly. He was probably feeling faint from the evolution of his own devolution as a leader in the House Republican Caucus.

With his head spinning from the constantly-shifting developments surrounding sexual harassment allegations, he needed to see his doctor, talk to a counselor and, more than likely, make amends with his wife, if he hadn’t already.

In a matter of a month, he went from being a valuable member of the House’s Republican supermajority to an outcast, barely a legislator, but not without considerable resistance.

The strategy of denial works sometimes. But in this case, the stonewalling by Durham and his own caucus led to his embarrassing situation.

This could well fit the classic definition of a tragedy: The failure of an otherwise honorable man to recognize a personal weakness, which leads to his demise. Or, maybe it’s just the old standby from the King James translation of Proverbs: “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

A month and a-half ago, hardly anybody was talking publicly about the Franklin rep’s situation.

But Capitol Hill reporters – and nearly anybody with connections at the General Assembly – knew about allegations of inappropriate behavior with interns along with talk Durham might have had an affair with a state representative who resigned from the Legislature after only one session.

After days of speculation about improper text messages Durham allegedly sent to women at the Legislature (thanks to a report by The Tennessean, which granted them anonymity), Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey dropped the big bomb when he said the press didn’t force anyone to send text messages after midnight asking women for pictures.

Nor did the media force anyone to have an affair with another state representative and cause their resignation.

Ramsey said he couldn’t confirm Durham’s alleged affair, but he said everybody knew what he was talking about. The lieutenant governor can be quick to judgment sometimes, but it’s highly unlikely he hadn’t thought deliberately about this before making a public statement.

Clearly, the disgraced legislator wasn’t Ryan Haynes, who left to become chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, or Mike Harrison, who quit to work as a county mayors’ lobbyist.

That leaves former West Tennessee Rep. Leigh Wilburn, who stepped down last year “due to unforeseen circumstances involving my immediate and extended family and business,” according to reports.

Early on, Ramsey said he thought Durham should step down as Republican Caucus whip, then he said the representative should resign from the Legislature.

Ramsey probably should have made the statement a month early, but give Ramsey credit for one thing – directness.

Gov. Bill Haslam danced around the topic initially, but later said he didn’t see how Durham could continue to represent his constituents effectively. He and other top Republicans seemed to speak in riddles about the situation or to speak only in private.

They kicked the press out of a House Republican Caucus meeting to hold a secret vote on whether to force Durham to step down as whip.

(Incidentally, the whip is supposed to be responsible for making sure the caucus follows the party line during votes – stemming from the old parlance of whipping hunting dogs to keep them on the trail. Somewhere along the line, though, Durham’s main job was said to be helping party members raise election funds. It’s hard to imagine he could be effective at either of those, with the party’s top people telling him to get the heck out of Nashville. And with a two-week absence, albeit excused, he’s not representing anybody right now.)

But back to this secret meeting. Instead of nipping this in the bud, the caucus held a procedural vote to determine whether to suspend the rules and allowed Durham to keep the whip position.

He apparently thought he came out unscathed, and Caucus Chairman Glen Casada might have exacerbated the situation by giving him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he helped put him in the leadership position and was a key supporter.

But then The Tennessean (which deserves some kudos) ran its anonymous allegations story, leading to a bizarre string of events in which Durham resigned as whip, rescinded the resignation and then officially resigned.

With Democrats crying for a bipartisan committee with subpoena powers to be appointed to look into Durham’s case and others likely to follow, the governor, Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell finally put on the pressure, forcing Durham to leave the caucus and go into hiding for two weeks.

Harwell called for a new look at the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy and asked the attorney general to investigate Durham’s case, saying the results could be used to expel him.

As is typical for this debacle, Durham denied just about any wrongdoing. He said he couldn’t recall any late-night texting and had no physical relationship with another legislator.

But considering revelations by House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who said women complained to him about Durham’s behavior in the 2015 and over the summer, well, it might be time to take this matter seriously. Don’t ya think?

While Democrats sidestep questions about whether Rep. Joe Armstrong should step down amid an indictment on income tax fraud stemming from profiteering on sales of cigarette tax stamps, Republicans need to take a long look in the mirror and consider how their actions led to Durham’s implosion.

Armstrong faces criminal charges but stepped down from a House Democratic Caucus leadership position. Durham dodged an indictment on allegations of prescription fraud, according to reports.

Yet the harangue about his behavior had little to do with whether he forged a prescription or whether he wrote a character letter for a former youth pastor who pleaded guilty to statutory rape.

No, this was one of the worst-kept secrets in legislative history, and eventually Durham’s fellow Republicans were glad to tell the rest of the story – but only after the media whipped them back into line.

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

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