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GOP Leaders Say Durham Is An Outlier; Others Complain There’s A Culture Of Indifference

Chas Sisk

Hear the radio version of this story.

The complaints about Jeremy Durham began within weeks of his election in 2012.

One of the earliest came in February 2013, not long after the Franklin Republican took his seat in the General Assembly. A legislative aide told investigators she was having drinks with Durham and her boss, a female lawmaker identified only as "Rep. Jane Doe 33," when Durham looked her up and down and made a comment about her physique.

Durham pursued the aide for the next several months. The aide believes her boss knew all along.

Though she resisted Durham's overtures, the aide was fired. She told investigators that afterward, her boss badmouthed her to other lawmakers, preventing her from finding another job.

In all, nine lawmakers may have known about state Representative Jeremy Durham's behavior before a formal inquiry was launched earlier this year.

Women told investigators from the Tennessee Attorney General's office they began to complain immediately after Durham arrived at the legislature. Several lawmakers are reported to have agreed with them that Durham's behavior crossed the line.

But three years would pass before an investigation was opened. That has some asking whether lawmakers — including Republican leaders — should have done more to stop him.

"There's a huge cultural problem here at the Capitol, and Speaker Beth Harwell has been in leadership for five years," says Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini. "She has to have known that there was a culture problem."

Several women told investigators they sought help from lawmakers, or that lawmakers were nearby when they were harassed by Durham.

One woman, a lobbyist, says she showed a legislator the text messages on her phone that Durham had sent her and demanded he "fix this." To the woman's knowledge, the lawmaker took no action.

Yet another woman says she was told to go home and talk to her husband before filing a complaint.

The stories about Durham became grist for the rumor mill. Some lawmakers, including Rep. Jane Doe 33, claim they never witnessed him behave inappropriately. Others including House Speaker Beth Harwell — who isn't identified in the report but acknowledges she heard enough about Durham's behavior to be concerned — say their hands were tied because no woman was willing to file a formal complaint against Durham.

'Welcome To Capitol Hill'

According to investigators, several women say Durham shrugged off their complaints about his behavior by telling them the same line, "Welcome to Capitol Hill."

Nonetheless Republican leaders say Durham's behavior was an outlier, atypical of state lawmakers. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says the culture around the state Capitol has changed significantly since he first arrived in the early 1990s.

"When somebody like a Jeremy Durham says something like 'Welcome to Capitol Hill,' it makes you just want to smack him in the mouth," he says. "Because that's not the way it is. It really isn't."

But some of the women who spoke to investigators disagreed. Though they conceded Durham's behavior was extreme, they also said they were fearful of retaliation if they spoke up about it. Instead, they said they advised one another to avoid being alone with him — or avoid seeing him entirely.

Some sought even more distance. The unidentified aide who said she was fired after resisting Durham's advances now works elsewhere.

She told investigators of her dream to become a lobbyist at the Capitol one day, "it's all gone."

Copyright 2016 WPLN News

Chas joined WPLN in 2015 after eight years with The Tennessean, including more than five years as the newspaper's statehouse reporter.Chas has also covered communities, politics and business in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Chas grew up in South Carolina and attended Columbia University in New York, where he studied economics and journalism. Outside of work, he's a dedicated distance runner, having completed a dozen marathons