Sunday column: Old and new in the Durham dither

In some respects, the ongoing legislative discourse over the doings of state Rep. Jeremy Durham can be seen as an example of truth in the old adage about the more things change, the more they stay the same.

But there are some curious and novel aspects to the Durham dither that stand in contrast to past uproars over legislators engaged in activities that involved overtones of inappropriate sexual behavior. Maybe that has something to do with the current political environment in Legislatorland.

Three past cases with some comparison and contrast:

-In 2009, state Sen. Paul Stanley, a bright, up-and-coming Republican lawmaker from Germantown, had an affair with a 22-year-old intern that came to light when the young woman’s boyfriend tried to extort a $10,000 payment from Stanley in exchange for his silence. Stanley instead reported the demand to the TBI and the whole affair became public. He was urged to resign his seat and did so.

In the matter of Durham, interns have never been mentioned publicly, though, well, let’s just say they have made their way into the wild rumor circuit of Legislatorland. And, strangely, as part of her response to the Durham situation, House Speaker Beth Harwell declared that interns would not be allowed attend legislative receptions and would not be allowed to provide their cell phone numbers to legislators.

Huh? As Democrats said in a news conference last week, that seems silly. For one thing, legislative policy – at least since Stanley’s time – already prohibits interns from attending receptions, where alcohol is often served and some interns are under age 21. And phone numbers? Shouldn’t a legislator be able to call an intern to ask if he or she could come in a bit early since someone else has called in sick? And what do interns have to do with the Durham thing, except on the utterly unreliable rumor circuit.

–In 2002, Rep. Ronnie Davis, R-Newport, was charged in a bizarre scheme to help a couple of Texas men get diplomatic passports. His co-defendant was a woman other than his wife who worked at the Legislature. Davis was also charged with helping her illegally obtain drugs. He ran for reelection while under indictment and lost to a Democrat in the decidedly Republican district, later pleading guilty to some of the charges and serving his time in a federal prison.

There was no effort to expel Davis from his legislative seat. There is a developing effort, endorsed by Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, to expel Durham, who has not been charged with any crime – though a grand jury did hear, and reject, a TBI attempt to prosecute him for prescription drug fraud.

–In 1996, state Rep. Joe Bell, D-Lebanon, solicited sex from a legislative staffer. She was wise enough to carry a tape recorder with her when invited to lunch with the legislator – apparently based on past experience – and provided the resulting recording to then-House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and others, who kept her identity confidential. Bell’s accuser, however, was widely known on the rumor circuit.

Naifeh booted Bell from his leadership position – House Agriculture Committee chairman – but there was no effort to expel him. Bell, now deceased, did not seek reelection, but as an outwardly affable fellow with good political people skills, he did subsequently win election ti a local office in his native Wilson County, even though he also faced negative publicity over a DUI arrest.

Ergo, we have the same old situation of legislators accused of sexual misconduct. But in the Durham case, there are scant specifics in the public arena. Thanks to investigative reporting by The Tennessean, we know that at least three women say they got inappropriate text messages from Durham. And legislative leaders have acknowledged hearing lots of rumors, including – in some cases – women who talked with them but feared reprisals if they went public.

A quote from one of Harwell’s news releases: “If the rumors I continue to hear regarding Rep. Durham are true, Rep. Durham needs to focus on his family and receiving the help he needs.” Having heard some of those rumors, she’s right.

Durham says he’ll fight to retain his seat, blaming the “liberal media” and establishment Republicans working with Democrats because he sponsored a “stop Obamacare” bill – a notion embraced in today’s political environment by some on the right-wing talk show circuit.

The upshot is that we have an unprecedented case of a legislator threatened with expulsion on the basis of rumors and anonymous allegations. And maybe an expulsion proceeding is the only way to clear the air.

Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.