Beth Harwell rewrites history of Jeremy Durham debacle

tennessean-news-graphicBonnie Dow. The Tennessean. September 23, 2016.

Last week’s vote to expel Jeremy Durham from the Tennessee General Assembly was a welcome conclusion to the sordid saga that has occupied the state’s attention since January.

Yet House Speaker Beth Harwell’s self-congratulatory account in The Tennessean of her role in the Durham debacle overlooks key details worth remembering.

Harwell claims that the vote sends the message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Yet the question remains: Why was it tolerated for so long? The attorney general’s report released in mid-July made clear that Durham’s behavior had been going on for years, and reporting in The Tennessean made equally clear that Harwell and other members of the Republican leadership had to know about it.

We now know that interns were routinely cautioned to avoid him. Yet Harwell never did anything about Durham’s conduct until after it was exposed in The Tennessean in late January.

Once the attorney general’s report established that Durham was a serial sexual harasser, Harwell again avoided decisive action, saying that she had no power to fire him and that the voters in his district should decide his fate. She would change her tune just a few days later, however, when renewed calls for expulsion accompanied the revelation that Durham would keep his state pension if he completed his second term.

Under this new pressure in late July, the speaker released a petition for a special session, a largely symbolic move given that the latter half of July was taken up with the national party conventions and the run-up to the Aug. 4 primary election. Few legislators were available to sign the petition in person, as was required. And few did. After Durham conveniently lost his Aug. 4 primary, Harwell called off the petition effort, saying legislators had had enough time to decide.

In early September, Harwell was presented with another opportunity not of her own making. When the governor called a special session to save the state $60 million in federal funds, the speaker made sure that the session also included a vote to expel Durham.That this finally occurred, seven months after the initial revelations of his abominable behavior and years after she first heard of it, is hardly something for which she deserves commendation. In fact, given the Aug. 4 primary outcome in her district, saving face on the Durham situation had become a political necessity.

Harwell ran unopposed in the primary, but the vote totals tell the tale: Several hundred more Democrats than Republicans voted in House District 56 on Aug. 4, an effect that will intensify in November when turnout will be higher and when there is a Democratic woman at the top of the ticket.

The female voters who come out to vote for Hillary Clinton — some of whom will be Republicans, given Clinton’s opposition — may think twice about voting for a state representative who, at each stage in the string of events that led to Durham’s expulsion, acted only when forced into a corner.

 

Bonnie Dow is a co-founder and treasurer of Women for Tennessee’s Future, a political action committee that funds female candidates.