Sunday Column: A Move Toward Tolerance of Politicians’ Mistakes?

Maybe, just maybe, a new and more tolerant attitude toward allegations of misdeeds by Tennessee political figures could be developing these days.
Consider that, a few years back when the Tennessee Waltz scandal broke, leadership of the state Republican Party, both publicly and privately, pressured then-Rep. Chris Newton, R-Cleveland, to resign from the Legislature immediately after his indictment. He did.
In contrast, Democratic Party leaders of the day — that was in 2005, when Democrats still controlled the Legislature — offered a more muddled public response, while some, but not all, in leadership positions pushed their party’s three indicted officeholders to resign. They did, but after considerable foot-dragging while the GOP had a field day denouncing corrupt Democrats.
The Republicans, arguably, were less tolerant of misbehavior by their own than were Democrats. And they rejoiced in Democratic misdeeds.
Consider that this year, we currently have three Republican representatives — Jim Cobb of Spring City, David Hawk of Greeneville and Curry Todd of Collierville, all of whom were House committee chairmen when the 107th General Assembly began — under criminal indictment.

Newton was charged with a felony. The three under indictment this year are charged with misdemeanors — assault in the case of Cobb, domestic violence in the case of Hawk and driving under the influence coupled with gun charges in the case of Todd. And there’s a significant distinction between felonies and misdemeanors.
But remember that when then-Rep. Robb Briley, D-Nashville, was charged with DUI and vandalism a couple of years after Tennessee Waltz, the Republican Party publicly demanded that he immediately resign from the Legislature in an onslaught of news releases denouncing Democrats in general and Briley in particular.
Briley didn’t resign his seat and Democrats publicly backed him in that, citing the presumption of innocence and such — although there was a widely distributed video made by arresting officers that cast considerable doubt on that presumption.
But Briley did resign his committee chairmanship under prodding by members of his own party. So did Todd and Hawk this year. Cobb’s September indictment came after the 107th General Assembly had adjourned, never to meet again, so his resignation — or lack thereof — may be reasonably considered irrelevant, especially given that he lost a bid for re-election in the Republican primary on Aug. 2.
Still, this year’s indictments have been met, in comparison to past partisan outbursts, with deafening silence.
Maybe a new spirit of bipartisan tolerance has arrived.
Yes, state Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester took a rhetorical shot or two at Todd and Hawk, but that was fairly obligatory. Even he hasn’t done a missive to the media on Cobb.
On the Republican side, only Hawk among the indicted has an opponent this year, and the party is backing him, by all indications, in whole-hearted fashion. Tolerance based on the presumption of innocence, you might say.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, meanwhile, said he wasn’t going to cast any verbal stones at the indicted Republicans because “one of our guys could be next.” And besides, Turner said, he regards Cobb and Todd as pretty decent fellows, given they’re Republicans.
Last week, we had the reported revelation that Republican Congressman Scott DesJarlais, after having sexual relations with a woman other than his wife a dozen years ago, pressured her to have an abortion.
No crime, apparently, was committed, but that’s a pretty serious situation that involved personal actions that ran counter to the congressman’s public words of anti-abortion activism — arguably more serious than a Missouri congressman using the words “legitimate rape,” which provoked considerable criticism from within his own party.
But Tennessee’s Republican Party rallied behind DesJarlais, denouncing the “desperate smear campaign” involved in publicizing the matter and expressing confidence that voters will ignore it, if not forgive and forget.
Maybe, just maybe, we have another example here of the new, evolving attitude of tolerance for past personal mistakes. At least for the folks on your side.

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