WASHINGTON - In his first extensive comments on Tennessee's most controversial congressman, Gov. Bill Haslam stopped short of endorsing Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais for re-election in 2014.
The governor's careful statements came last week during an interview at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Pressed repeatedly, Haslam declined to say whether he'll support DesJarlais if the Jasper physician runs for a third term.
"I think everybody's kind of clear what the issue is there," Haslam told editors and reporters, "and I think he'll have a good bunch of ... competition."
As the ostensibly anti-abortion physician vied for re-election last fall, it emerged he slept with a patient and pressured her to have an abortion. The Times Free Press later disclosed he supported his ex-wife's abortions and had sexual relationships with another patient and several co-workers at Grandview Medical Center in Jasper, Tenn.
A Knoxville native, Haslam lives in the governor's mansion in Nashville, but he still votes in his hometown. He stressed that fact when asked if he favors DesJarlais or the congressman's only opponent to date.
"Well, you've got some other people who might run, as well," Haslam said with a laugh. "I'm not in that district. I'll let that district vote. I'm going to vote for [Knoxvillian and longtime U.S. Rep.] Jimmy Duncan for my congressman."
In several recent interviews, DesJarlais has asked voters to forgive him. He's called the revelations old news and described himself as a changed man since the abortions and relationships, some of which occurred two decades ago.
A spokesman reinforced that message in a statement Thursday.
"Congressman DesJarlais agrees with the governor that it is ultimately up to the voters," spokesman Robert Jameson said. "The congressman looks forward to running on his independent, conservative record that has been embraced by the people of Tennessee and ignored by the liberal media, who seem capable of only covering a 15-year-old divorce."
The American Medical Association discourages sex with patients, and complaints against DesJarlais have been filed with the Tennessee Department of Health. The congressman recently said state investigators have contacted him about the relationships.
The revelations already have encouraged a primary challenger in state Sen. Jim Tracy, a Republican insurance agent from Shelbyville who released a long list of influential fundraisers and supporters. Several are elected officials.
"When they put their names on the line, that means something," Tracy said in a Thursday phone interview. "I respect the governor, but I know he's extremely busy right now. And he's got his own re-election campaign coming up."
Haslam has announced he'll run for a second term in 2014. One expert said that's why he didn't take a 4th District stance.
"It's a very unusual situation," Vanderbilt University political science professor Joshua Clinton said. "From any state politician's perspective, a contested primary is a distraction. Why cause trouble when you don't need to?"
Some haven't hesitated to weigh in. In January, the state's No. 2 elected Republican, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, joined Tracy's "leadership team." Republican state Sens. Bo Watson, of Hixson, and Todd Gardenhire, of Chattanooga, also were on Tracy's list.