By: Indivisible Hardin County
In the state of Tennessee, the GOP supermajority has failed to rein in sexual misconduct within the halls of the General Assembly. From Rep. Rick Staples, a Democratic legislator that violated the Assembly’s sexual harassment policy with no repercussions, to Rep. David Byrd, a Republican who has been credibly accused of child sexual abuse that occurred when he was an authority figure at a rural Tennessee high school, state leadership complicity empowers sexual predators and creates a dangerous environment for survivors in our state.
The story of David Byrd is one of corruption, power, and a lack of moral integrity. For the sake of readability, we will give a quick overview of the situation.
In the early part of 2018, three brave women came forward to warn the public of Byrd’s historical abuse of power. As a coach and mentor, these women say that David Byrd sexually abused them when they were his students. Their stories are graphic and heartbreaking. One of the survivors, Christi Rice, recorded a conversation with Byrd during which he apologizes repeatedly, although he never specifies what the apologies are for. Rice’s story of abuse is corroborated by then boys’ basketball coach, Michael Edwards. David Byrd has never denied the allegations that he sexually abused at least three of his former students. Unfortunately, despite calls from his own party to step down and the incredible work by a small group of volunteers called Enough Is Enough TN, Byrd refused to resign. With no time for another candidate to primary him for the Republican nomination, Byrd won his bid for re-election in a solidly red district that has voted Republican for over 100 years. This election was unnecessarily politicized by the depraved then-Speaker of the House Glen Casada, who muddied the waters with false claims of out-of-state canvassers and vicious attack ads against the survivors. These ads also maintained Byrd’s innocence –a stance that Byrd himself does not maintain.
Enough Is Enough TN, with whom our Indivisible group leader volunteers, has worked tirelessly to keep David Byrd’s name in the news. They, along with many other sister organizations, have contacted legislators, published opinion pieces, held protests, called press conferences, and had a 30+ hour sit-in outside Governor Bill Lee’s office resulting in the arrest of five of their activists. It is because of all this pressure, that a resolution to expel David Byrd from the state legislature was brought up for a vote by Rep. Gloria Johnson during a special session to oust the corrupt Speaker Casada.
Ultimately, it was decided that the vote to expel Byrd would have to wait until after Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery gave an opinion to Speaker Cameron Sexton on the legality of expelling Byrd for actions committed before he became a legislator. Rep. Michael Curcio publicly assured Tennesseans that he took the allegations against Byrd very seriously and would bring Byrd before the judiciary committee as soon as he was given the go ahead by newly appointed Speaker Cameron Sexton.
While Sexton’s request for an opinion from the AG successfully stalled Byrd’s expulsion, Sexton did not receive the answer he wanted. AG Slatery pointed out that the Tennessee Constitution allows for a member of the Tennessee Legislature to be removed from office for crimes committed before taking office. Slatery also said that this should only be done in the most serious of circumstances. Speaker Sexton immediately announced that he would not bring David Byrd before a judiciary committee. Considering that the statute of limitations has passed for Byrd’s survivors, a House investigation is the only opportunity for Byrd to be held accountable for his actions. By declining to bring the matter before the Judiciary Committee, GOP leadership sends a clear message to all survivors in the state of Tennessee that allegations of sexual and domestic abuse won’t be addressed or taken seriously. Further, Representative David Byrd currently sits on two Education subcommittees, a particularly cruel indignity to survivors as he now passes legislation pertaining to the vulnerable population that he historically preyed upon.
Sexual and domestic abuse are nonpartisan issues. GOP leadership’s unwavering loyalty to an immoral legislator demonstrates to the people of Tennessee that committing sexual abuse not only holds no repercussions, but it often comes with special treatment and rewards, which emboldens predators and continues to set a narrative that further victimizes survivors.
It is time for Tennessee leadership to do the right thing. On January 14, 2020, join us for Resistance Day on the Hill. We will fill the halls of the state house to demonstrate that we expect and deserve moral integrity in our Representatives.
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