When Legislators Behave Badly—What Should Be Done?

Twenty-two different people have told the Attorney General that Republican State Representative Jeremy Durham engaged in various kinds of sexual innuendo and relations with them. He has suspended his campaign but has chosen not to resign. What should be done?

Sounds like a question with an easy answer, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Here are some of my thoughts based on twenty-two years in state politics, which included the “pleasure” of serving in office when legislative colleagues were indicted and the “pleasure” of holding a “trial” to expel a colleague only to be sued in federal court for doing so. But before I share those thoughts, let me be clear; I’m not defending Rep. Durham or the conduct he’s been accused of or whatever conduct he has actually engaged in. In fact, given everything, if I were him, I would resign, but that’s not where we are.

Should the Legislature remove him?

This is a bit tricky because to say “no” is to risk being accused of winking at the behavior of which Rep. Durham’s been accused or condoning his behavior. But I would say in this particular case, “Go slowly because the precedent you set could prove problematic.”

Politics can be a dirty business. Power is a great temptation. People will say all kinds of things about others, particularly when not under oath, in order to remove them from power or ascend to a place of power. Accusations do not always prove to be actualities.

Until yesterday, when Rep. Durham admitted that he made some of the statements he was accused of, the Legislature had only unsworn allegations to go on. Of course, it’s fine if the Legislature wants to make its own determinations of guilt and innocence based on unsworn “he said, she said” allegations and denials, but the members may find themselves spending more time on expulsion proceedings than on legislative matters if they start down that path.

Rep. Durham’s admission would ameliorate the potential precedent for incessant “witch-hunts,” but current legislators have a practical issue to consider. While removing Rep. Durham from office now would make a “statement,” the Legislature is adjourned until next January. If the voters don’t re-elect him on August 4th, then should the Legislature be called back into session for some unforeseen reason, his primary opponent would take office anyway. Removing him now will not affect his ability to take office in January if the voters should re-elect him. And that leads to a final consideration.

Were Rep. Durham’s term not at an end as a practical matter, then the Legislature would need to pursue what the investigation has uncovered. But voters start going to the polls today, and they can serve as their own jury. After all, the power of that office in our system of civil government belongs to them. And that brings up my final observation.

One of my associates shared with me a recent commentary in which the author said we have the kind of politicians and laws we have because we, as a people, allow it. If that’s true, and it largely is, then all I can say is “Ouch! Who is going to hold us accountable?”

We can begin to hold ourselves accountable by voting wisely this election cycle. We hope TNVoterGuide.org will help you do that.


David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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