State Rep. Kevin Brooks set the tone for Jeremy Durham’s ouster in prayer, of all places.
Quoting from Luke, the Cleveland Republican opened the recent extraordinary session of the General Assembly saying, “Heavenly Father, you’re very clear in your word when you say that every valley will be filled, every mountain and hill brought low and the crooked places made straight and the rough places made smooth.
“Father, we pray that you would have your will in this chamber and that you would go before us and make our crooked ways straight.”
Brooks didn’t mention Durham in his opening appeal, but he sent a clear message to House members called into special session by Gov. Bill Haslam to tweak a DUI law and keep $60 million in federal funding. Holding onto the money was vital, but they spent most of their time debating the Durham debacle over misconduct and sexual harassment.
During floor debate and in a Republican Caucus meeting called hastily to figure out exactly how to deal with Durham after he showed up in the House chamber, Brooks, who works in communications for the Church of God, made no secret he felt Durham should be expelled.
“There are victims on this Hill in shock and disbelief that we are discussing procedures,” Brooks said, referring to arguments over House rules, anonymous allegations and due process – or lack thereof. He pointed out during his time working with Sears if an employee had faced the same allegations as Durham he would have been fired immediately.
The voters of Durham’s 65th District in Franklin had spoken by nominating Republican Sam Whitson after Attorney General Herbert Slatery released a scathing report detailing incidents involving alleged harassment of 22 women, which forced Durham to suspend his campaign.
“We are simply officially terminating his pension,” Brooks said.
If Durham had stayed in office until November, completing four full years in office, he would have been eligible for a pension of about $5,000 a year starting at age 52.
But while two petitions filed early in the summer failed to garner enough signatures for a House-called special session to expel Durham, Haslam’s move for an extraordinary session to fix an underage DUI bill did the trick.
And, of course, it gave the House plenty of opportunity to offer spiritual guidance.
Rep. Susan Lynn, the Mt. Juliet Republican who made the motion to expel Durham, told caucus members she regretted they had reached this point. Durham was only the second House member ejected since 1866.
In spite of complaints the House was ditching due process so Speaker Beth Harwell could rid herself of a political liability, Lynn contended Durham had plenty of opportunities to defend himself before the attorney general and an ad hoc committee appointed to look into his misdeeds.
The House holds a constitutional right to discipline its members, Lynn pointed out. She had the backing of Chief Clerk Joe McCord, who read passages from the state Constitution several times stating the House has “absolute authority” to set its own rules and take action.
In other words, Durham was done before he ever stepped foot in the chamber. And if the state Constitution wasn’t enough, God himself preordained it.
Not to be outdone by Brooks, Lynn entered a spiritual realm, too, telling Republican Caucus members about a recent prayer service she attended in which the speaker discussed political leaders being appointed from on high.
“It is the Lord who puts people in office, and it is the Lord who plucks them out,” Lynn said. “The Lord has already decided this representative will not stay in office.”
A rumbling noise that thundered through the Capitol a few minutes later – even if it was probably work being done in the tunnel – sounded like a little bit more than a plucking sound.
But surely to goodness God has better political judgment than Durham and some of the other yahoos we’ve elected to office in Tennessee. Ray Blanton comes to mind.
Thus, not long after Durham stumbled through a half-baked defense in questioning by Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart, the House removed him.
The 70-2-4 vote came with a few holdouts continuing to proclaim he didn’t receive due process, apparently thinking the House is a court of law, even though its rules say it can do just about anything it wants – especially with almighty God backing the proceedings.
This ain’t over
The House hastened to its final tally for Durham’s demise after Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell raised questions about a Republican legislator who allegedly fired a female staffer for complaining about Durham’s advances.
Early in the session, Republican leaders complained that Democrats were using that part of the AG’s report as a political weapon while they were trying to expel a “serial harasser.”
Really, did they expect anything less?
Just moments after the ouster, Mitchell said the attorney general’s report is clear about the way the female staff member was treated by a woman legislator.
“I have a problem with that. I think the people of Tennessee have a problem with that, and we need to correct that situation to make it safe for women again in the Tennessee General Assembly,” Mitchell said.
“We’re gonna keep pushing the attorney general to do his job. The attorney general’s got the evidence, he did the interviews. It’s against the law to retaliate against a sexual harassment victim in this state. The attorney general needs to do his job.”
House members voted to keep the identities of those in the report anonymous during the proceeding. Asked if he knew which legislator fired the staffer, Mitchell said, “No, but I think the attorney general does.”
Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada says the staffer was fired for “dereliction of duty,” more or less failing to do her job.
Still, Stewart is considering official action asking the House speaker or attorney general to look into the staff member’s firing. The firing does qualify as sexual harassment but would fall under the House Ethics Committee’s jurisdiction, he said.
“I think it’s incumbent on the AG, once he’s issued a report, to follow up on any reports that people have been retaliated against, fired or what have you, for being victims,” Stewart said.
Throughout the 2016 session and during the special session, Stewart and fellow Democrats hammered Harwell for allowing the matter to fester.
Harwell, who is running against Democrat Chris Moth in the Nov. 8 election, is clearly done with the Durham situation – or at least wants to be – and probably wishes he’d been expelled months ago.
Women voters in her upper-class Davidson County district aren’t thrilled with the things going on at the Capitol, even if it’s been like a boys’ locker room for the last 100 years, because even if Durham isn’t the first, he’s probably among the worst.
Word on the street is Harwell’s had to work a lot harder than usual on campaigning, possibly even pounding the pavement door to door, because of the albatross of Durham clinging to her.
Moments after voting to oust him, Harwell said she hoped he would seek help to regain some mental “stability.”
But she cast off the idea that another legislator wrongfully fired a female staff member, saying, “I think the Democrats just kind of always look for something, right? That’s their job, and I understand.”
The final analysis
Before we reached the point of Durham’s debauchery – allegedly including sex with a young political worker in his legislative office – Republicans considered removing him from his position as whip because of an assortment of allegations. Those ranged from writing a character reference letter for a former youth minister convicted of statutory rape to talking the Williamson County district attorney out of charging him with prescription fraud.
If he had stepped down from the leadership post instead of accusing the “liberal media” of trying to hound him out of office in early 2016, he might still be in office.
Instead, he took a “crooked path” to the Capitol from the Rachel Jackson Building once Harwell banished him from the Legislative Plaza to cut off contact with female staffers and women lobbyists after the AG said he might be a threat to women.
Durham is threatening to sue the state over his dismissal, challenging the attorney general’s report, the actions of the House and, ultimately, the Franklin voters.
What does he have to gain? He can’t overturn the election’s outcome, so after spending tens of thousands of dollars for a high-powered attorney to take the state of Tennessee to court, he’ll get a paltry $5,000 a year to carry him into the sunset.
Considering the state and federal investigations he faces regarding alleged use of campaign finances to prop up his private business, he better stick with that battle.
Ultimately, though, this appears to be a case where God decided the outcome of Durham’s ouster, with Republican leadership expediting the process. But Democrats will keep trying to resurrect this public besmirching – maybe to regain honor statewide.
So let it be written, so let it be done.
Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.