NASHVILLE — State Democrats asked a Marion County chancellor on Wednesday to unseal portions of Republican Congressman Scott DesJarlais' 2001 divorce records, arguing voters should know full details of revelations that have rocked the Jasper physician's campaign.
Democrats filed the motion, arguing "time is of the essence" so voters can "evaluate the full court record regarding allegations that Congressman DesJarlais had extra-marital affairs, violated medical ethics standards by engaging in sexual relations with patients and/or asked at least one woman with whom he had an affair have an abortion."
DesJarlais campaign manager Brandon Lewis accused Democrats of engaging in a "recycled smear" and "digging through the Dumpster" to aid what he called the failing campaign of the congressman's opponent, state Sen. Eric Stewart of Winchester.
Democrats, Lewis said, are trying to "hide [Stewart's] pro-choice record and support of Barack Obama, ObamaCare and the liberal policies that have crushed job creators."
DesJarlais has previously acknowledged the accuracy of a partial transcript of a recorded 2000 conversation in which he encouraged an unnamed patient whom he saw romantically to get an abortion.
But DesJarlais has said he knew the woman was not pregnant, having last seen her four months earlier, and was using "strong" language to get her to admit it. He says there was no pregnancy and no abortion.
Stewart and Democrats have been hitting DesJarlais, who says he is pro life, repeatedly as a hypocrite ever since. Many of Tennessee's top elected Republicans, including Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Congressman Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga, have distanced themselves from the congressman.
Former Republican Gov. Winfield Dunn (1971-1975), who routinely campaigns on behalf of Republicans, said Wednesday said DesJarlais had never asked him to do so.
"He's got a campaign well under way, but of course he has some matters to deal with that obviously are going to cause him quite a challenge," Dunn told reporters after an unrelated event at Legislative Plaza. "But he'll make his way."
He said he is "not well enough versed" to comment on the controversy.
"I frankly have no strong opinion," Dunn said of DesJarlais. "He's a Republican. I have a great deal of respect for that and would prefer to see him there [in Congress]. He's obviously had some serious personal problems in the past, but I don't know many people who haven't had some serious personal problems."
Dunn said he believes DesJarlais "can put them behind him and go on to be a great representative -- and I hope he will."
Former Democratic Rep. Lincoln Davis, who lost the 4th Congressional District seat to DesJarlais two years ago, was at the same event, which dealt with a bipartisan effort to get Congress to address federal budgetary problems.
Davis, who used open portions from DesJarlais' divorce with then-wife Susan DesJarlais during 2010, said he regrets letting campaign aides and consultants persuade him to do so. He also said he did not provide the sealed transcript that triggered the controversy.
The former congressman said he worries that "politics today has gotten to where it really just appears to be a game for folks. This is serious business."
Davis said it's not up to him to say whether he accepts DesJarlais' explanation for the discussion about abortion, noting "I think the voters have to make that decision."
In a recent appeal, DesJarlais urged voters not to judge him by his messy divorce, saying, "through grace and redemption, God has truly given me a second chance. I have had an incredible marriage to my wife Amy of 10 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."
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, ...