published Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Abortion phone call plays into DesJarlais election


by Chris Carroll
This Nov. 21, 2011 file photo shows Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., speaks in Spring Hill, Tenn. DesJarlais, a freshman congressman running for re-election on a pro-life platform urged his pregnant mistress to get an abortion a decade ago, according to a transcript of the recorded conversation.
This Nov. 21, 2011 file photo shows Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., speaks in Spring Hill, Tenn. DesJarlais, a freshman congressman running for re-election on a pro-life platform urged his pregnant mistress to get an abortion a decade ago, according to a transcript of the recorded conversation.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Staunchly Republican and socially conservative, Rebecca Miller of Cleveland, Tenn., is troubled by the revelation that Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais pressured a woman with whom he'd been sexually involved to get an abortion.

"It's extremely hypocritical," the 23-year-old said. "You can't argue with that at all."

Miller is finding it difficult to take the apparently abortion rights phone call made by the Jasper physician to the unnamed woman and square it with his staunchly anti-abortion stance in speeches and his voting record in Congress.

The result is that Miller is considering leaving her ballot blank in the Nov. 6 election when it comes to the 4th District race. She wants to take a look first, though, at the positions of DesJarlais' Democratic challenger, state Sen. Eric Stewart.

What resonance the DesJarlais controversy ultimately has with voters and the outcome of the race remains to be seen, some independent observers say.

The 4th District seat, which underwent substantial changes during Republican-drawn redistricting this year, leans more Republican and, until now, has been rated safely Republican by independent analysts.

But one thing is clear: Stewart, widely seen as the underdog, has seized on the 12-year-old transcript of the recorded conversation with the unnamed woman, first reported by the Huffington Post on Wednesday. And he's not letting up.

In news conferences Wednesday and Friday, he charged that DesJarlais has "broken the faith and the trust of the people of the 4th District." He also called DesJarlais' actions "disgusting" and "disqualifying."

In a Chattanooga Times Free Press interview on Friday, DesJarlais brushed off worries about the effect of the story on his political future.

"People who don't know me as well, when you see headlines with this type of content, I don't think it's unfair that people would give pause until they hear the full story," he added.

But he said he believes that once they do, they will support him.

Last week, after the controversy arose, Stewart's media consultant Bill Fletcher called it a game changer.

Poll
Would you vote for Scott DesJarlais for Congress?

"Totally new ball game starting today," he said.

When the story first broke, DesJarlais' office called the transcript "old news," left over from the Jasper physician's first race in 2010 when he defeated U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., in an upset.

During that contest, Davis and Democrats assailed DesJarlais over documents from his bitter divorce with then-wife Susan DesJarlais, finalized in 2001. One ad described an incident in which DesJarlais allegedly "dry fired" his unloaded gun outside her door and put the weapon in his mouth. DesJarlais vehemently denied the incident occurred.

But Democrats never brought up the abortion issue.

DesJarlais acknowledged the phone-call transcript was genuine and said the woman, whom he once treated for an ankle injury, came to him four months after their last contact and claimed she was pregnant by him. Taking into account the woman's slight build and the fact four months had passed since their last encounter, DesJarlais says it was obvious she wasn't pregnant.

"There was no pregnancy and no abortion," the congressman said, adding he used "strong language" about an abortion in an effort "to get her to tell me the truth."

He acknowledged it was "an imprudent approach" and "I'm not proud of it. In retrospect I should have dealt with these matters in a more diplomatic fashion."

He said he was legally separated from his then-wife so both were able to date other people. The relationship with the other woman was consensual, he said.

Last week, Stewart wouldn't answer direct questions on whether he comes favors or opposes abortion rights.

"At the end of the day, we need to do everything we can to reduce the number of abortions in this country, and we don't do that by politicizing the issue," he said.

Reverberations

David Wasserman, who follows U.S. House races for The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that analyzes and handicaps federal races, said on Friday that the revelations' impact on DesJarlais is an "open question."

"We weren't expecting this [4th District] to be a competitive race, but we're keeping an open mind," Wasserman said.

Also last week, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign distanced itself from DesJarlais, dropping the congressman's endorsement from its website, an endorsement it had highly touted when it first came down in March.

Tennessee Republican Party officials said they remain firmly behind DesJarlais. But two top state Republicans, Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, are trying to steer clear.

Haslam said he wanted to talk to DesJarlais before weighing in. Alexander said he doesn't "go around telling people what to do about issues like that."

"That's between the congressman and the voters in his district and his opponent," he said. "I know the voters of his district very well, and they're perfectly capable of making their own minds up."

Still, DesJarlais has a big advantage over Stewart in terms of money. DesJarlais reported $591,975 in his war chest while Stewart had $152,712. The congressman, who has avoided debates with Stewart, is already full force into television advertising.

Stewart is running an ad too -- it doesn't mention the abortion incident -- but he has far fewer dollars to reach voters across the district, which includes all or parts of 15 counties, including new areas where DesJarlais is largely unknown such as Rutherford County near Nashville.

Chattanooga isn't in the district, but redistricting this year inserted a good chunk of two reliably counties -- Bradley and Rhea.

Changing views

Whitwell resident Anna Holtcamp, a 71-year-old retiree, said she favored DesJarlais over then-Rep. Davis in 2010. Holtcamp described herself as an independent voter and doesn't believe in "using abortion for birth control."

But DesJarlais' voting record reflects her values, the Marion County resident said, and she'll have to get "all the facts" before she makes a final choice in the voting booth.

"If all this is true," she said, "Scott DesJarlais ain't the only politician that's done things that's not right."

Nita Pickett, 50, is a former DesJarlais patient and was "kind of sad when he was elected "because he would no longer be my doctor."

She also considers herself anti-abortion but said she's voting for Stewart.

"I find it so hard to believe this happened," said Pickett, who said she was formerly a Democrat and now is an independent. "I don't want to say anything bad about [DesJarlais] -- he is and was a good doctor. But he's saying one thing and doing another."

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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