Lawmaker accused of harassment is all alone with his M&Ms
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Amid the frenzied negotiations, flaring tempers and occasional frivolity marking the end of another Tennessee legislative session, one lawmaker stayed conspicuously alone and quiet.
While Republicans and Democrats held emergency caucus meetings to discuss the latest twists in the legislative endgame, Rep. Jeremy Durham sat silently at his desk in the largely deserted House chamber. During floor debates, he mostly stayed clear of the fray, except for padding up the aisle to the desk of a fellow Republican lawmaker who keeps a large supply of M&Ms, pistachios, jerky and other sustenance on his desk.
Durham, who is the subject of a sexual harassment investigation by the state attorney general, found himself being shunned after Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell effectively exiled him from the legislative office complex and Capitol for any purpose other than to perform his official duties.
Harwell took that unusual step after Attorney General Herbert Slatery went public with preliminary findings suggesting that Durham's "behavior may pose a continuing risk to unsuspecting women who are employed by or interact with the Legislature."
Such allegations aren't unheard of in legislative arenas, but Durham's end-of-session purgatory added a strange twist to an already odd situation. Durham had begun to take on a kind of walking dead status earlier, after revelations about his personal behavior stalled the meteoric rise of the second-term lawmaker from a heavily Republican Nashville-area district into House GOP leadership.
The fact that he had also co-sponsored legislation requiring transgender people to use only the restrooms for the gender on their birth certificates made him a target for late-night comedians. Some commentators suggested that a man called out for his behavior toward women at the Legislature didn't have much standing to protect the privacy of people going to the bathroom.
He has resisted calls from GOP leaders, including Gov. Bill Haslam, Harwell, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and state Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes, to give up his seat altogether.
The attorney general recommended that Durham be effectively quarantined following interviews with 34 current and former lawmakers, lobbyists, staffers and interns. Investigators were told Durham made sexual comments and had inappropriate physical contact with women working at Legislative Plaza.
Most of the interviewed women told Slatery's office they felt they could not report Durham's behavior because they feared losing their jobs or being deemed "untrustworthy" by employers, clients or lawmakers. Several said they avoided Durham or refused to be alone with him.
Durham, who did not respond to an email seeking comment, has denied any wrongdoing and is seeking re-election this fall. His attorney, Bill Harbison, has objected to what he called an "unusual" investigation.
Durham also drew rebukes last year from other lawmakers after he sought leniency for an ex-youth pastor who pleaded guilty to child porn possession and statutory rape of a 16-year-old parishioner. Last week, Durham voted for a bill to strengthen penalties for statutory rape by authority figures.
Under intense pressure from Harwell and others, Durham earlier in the session stepped aside as House majority whip, withdrew from the Republican caucus and took a two-week break to seek unspecified medical and pastoral counseling. After returning from that hiatus, he filed for re-election. While he refuses interviews routinely, he is rallying supporters for the fight.
Durham has a hefty campaign war chest to take on three GOP candidates who have filed to run against him, but the math could work against them. If they divide up the anti-Durham vote, the only thing keeping him from returning to the Capitol would be a Democratic opponent facing tough odds in the heavily conservative district.
The marathon end-of-session floor debates put Durham into constant contact with his colleagues and staff, though most appeared happy to avoid him. When he took to the well Wednesday to present a bill on judicial diversion, he made no comments beyond the required motions and was asked no questions. After about a minute, he was back out of the spotlight.
"It is very awkward," said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. "But right now, it's up to the voters in his district."
Durham's odd circumstances were discussed, briefly, when the House considered an adjournment resolution. Democrats questioned whether approval of the motion would affect the special committee's investigation into Durham's behavior. But they were assured from the well of the chamber that a paragraph had been added to the measure explicitly confirming that any panel "may meet after adjournment for the purpose of considering or investigating any matter of state business."
Shortly after the House approved the resolution to set the adjournment in motion — but about an hour before lawmakers ended their business for the year — Durham quietly gathered his belongings and left the chamber.
ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press. Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.
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The Gayly - 4/29/2016 @ 10:03 a.m. CDT