NASHVILLE — Austin Maxwell first met Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais earlier this year when Maxwell's home county of Rutherford became part of the 4th District.
"I'd heard great things about him from some other Republican folks out there," said the Rutherford County Republican Party chairman, adding he was impressed with both the Jasper physician and his wife of 10 years, Amy DesJarlais. "I've got friends who go to church with them."
Maxwell said he continues to stand by the anti-abortion freshman lawmaker amid revelations that DesJarlais, first elected in 2010, once encouraged a patient he slept with a dozen years ago to have an abortion.
"It's unfortunate," said Maxwell of the revelation that came out of records from DesJarlais' bitter divorce with his then-wife, Susan. "Divorces sometimes can be very pleasant. But they sometimes can be very nasty. This is obviously something from 10, 11, 12 years ago from his first marriage."
DesJarlais has acknowledged a transcript of his and the unidentified woman's 2000 conversation is genuine. But he says he was trying to get the woman, whom he had not seen in four months, to admit she was not pregnant.
There never was a pregnancy, and there was no abortion, said DesJarlais, who said the brief relationship came at a time when he and Susan DesJarlais had agreed during their divorce to see other people.
DesJarlais' opponent, Eric Stewart, is hammering the congressman over the transcript.
While some Republican elected officials are distancing themselves from DesJarlais, Maxwell and several other 4th District leaders last week said the controversy hasn't shaken their support, and they accept the congressman's explanations as posted in an open letter on his Facebook page.
After addressing his actions in 2000 as outlined earlier, DesJarlais said that "through grace and redemption, God has truly given me a second chance. I have had an incredible marriage to my wife Amy of ten years and have been blessed with an opportunity to raise three wonderful children."
Citing his "strong pro-life record in Congress and history of fighting for values important to Tennesseans," DesJarlais said, "I hope you will judge me on these facts because that is who I am."
That has resonance for retiree Tricia Stickel, president of the Maury County Tea Party.
"In the scheme of things, who he is now [and] the issues that we have in our government today, personal relationship mistakes [and] bitter divorces 12 years ago are personally insignificant," she said.
Franklin County Republican Party Chairwoman Iris Rudder said she got to know DesJarlais and his family when he campaigned two years ago and won an upset victory over then-U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn.
"He is a good man, and I'm proud to have him as my congressman," Rudder said. "I like the fact that he does what he says he will do. He represented the people according to their wishes" and opposed the federal health care law.
She said "talking about a divorce that's 12 years old, the past, does not get a job for anyone in the 4th District. ... It doesn't do anything to make lives better."
Maxwell cited Stewart's own explanation after the Times Free Press reported in August that the Democrat had had two Internal Revenue Service tax liens. One was paid off in the early 2000s, while the second was paid last month.
"Stewart said the voters really want to stay focused on the issues like jobs, the economy and fiscal spending. That's kind of my opinion," Maxwell said.
More than a week ago, however, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign removed from its website a news release on DesJarlais' endorsement of Romney issued in May.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., recently said of the controversy, "I don't go around telling people what to do about issues like that. That's between the congressman and the voters of his district," whom he said are capable of making up their own minds.
On Friday, Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's campaign manager, Todd Womack, emailed a statement saying "as he has with other members of our delegation, Senator Corker has supported Congressman DesJarlais' re-election effort with events in Washington and in Chattanooga."
A campaign aide for U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., didn't respond to an email Friday.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has said he wanted to talk to DesJarlais about the matter before commenting. Asked last week -- a week after his initial remarks -- whether he has spoken to DesJarlais, Haslam said he had not, despite receiving a text message from the congressman.
Nor did Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Republican speaker of the state Senate.
The Tennessee Republican Party issued a strong defense of DesJarlais after the initial revelation, charging "this is the same type of desperate smear campaign used by Lincoln Davis in 2010 which voters overwhelmingly rejected, and we trust they'll reject these same attacks by Democrat Eric Stewart in 2012."
Asked where the party is now that DesJarlais acknowledged the transcript was genuine and his subsequent explanation, Chairman Chris Devaney said in a statement that "Congressman DesJarlais has spoken to the people of the 4th District on this issue and we have nothing to add to his comments."
But on Friday, DesJarlais got good news from the two top U.S. House leaders, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported Friday that spokesmen for the officials are maintaining their support of DesJarlais.
"He supports every Republican incumbent who is running for office," said Cantor spokesman Doug Heye.
Meanwhile, a Democratic super Pac announced Friday it is airing $100,000 in ads highlighting the DesJarlais controversy. Earlier in the week, the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics announced it had filed an ethics complaint with the state Board of Medical Examiners over the relationship with the former patient.
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, ...