A popular Democrat in deeply conservative Tennessee, Barry is the first female mayor of America’s country music capital — a liberal enclave in the southern state
Chicago: Until last week, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry was a rising political star.
A popular Democrat in deeply conservative Tennessee, Barry is the first female mayor of America’s country music capital — a liberal enclave in the southern state.
The 54-year-old presided over the city’s economic growth, officiated its first same-sex wedding, and advocated for an ambitious $5 billion (Dh18.36 billion) mass transit plan.
“She was becoming increasingly visible on the national political stage,” said political science professor Joshua Clinton, of Nashville’s Vanderbilt University.
Then, came January 31.
Standing alone in front of news cameras, Barry confessed to a two-year extramarital affair with Sergeant Robert Forrest, the city police officer in charge of her personal security.
Barry is married. So is the officer. The affair had ended, she said, and both were trying to mend their personal lives.
“I am embarrassed and I am sad, and I am so sorry for all the pain that I have caused my family and his family,” Barry said.
The revelation was a bombshell.
Now Barry is fighting for her political life amid three official investigations, but has ruled out resigning. Sergeant Forrest retired from the city’s police department.
In the era of the ‘MeToo’ movement, with powerful men toppled over accusations of harassment or sexual impropriety, there have been questions over whether the mayor’s case was a reversal of that now-familiar narrative.
Did a powerful woman survive a scandal while her male subordinate did not? Was the police officer’s career over by choice?
During her news conference, Barry dismissed any parallel with the abuses fuelling the MeToo movement.
“This is not about sexually harassing and economically disadvantaging women,” she said. “This is a consensual relationship between two middle-aged people who had feelings for each other.”
The officer has not spoken publicly about why he chose to retire.
The gender role reversal — compared to most of the scandals exposed in recent months — may lessen the suspicions that Barry took advantage of her bodyguard.
But Clinton suspects the mayor’s gender could affect how the scandal plays out in other ways — exposing her to tougher scrutiny in the affair’s aftermath, because she is a woman.
“Politicians have obviously survived similar issues in the past,” Clinton told AFP. “One issue is whether she is treated differently by voters because of her gender.”
There is another important element, as well, said Vaughn May, a politics professor at Belmont University in Nashville.
“I suspect that she could survive the affair if issues of public trust were not a part of the story,” May told AFP.
“But with some constituents screaming that the affair impacted public policy, it’s a harder call.”
Mayor Barry is now facing multiple inquiries into her actions, financial expenditures, and her decision-making since the affair began, which, by her own admission, was in the Spring of 2016.
The latest probe, launched Wednesday, was prompted by a complaint that the affair may have led the mayor to oppose more police oversight.
“The simple fact is she knew there was at least one officer who could air her dirty laundry at a moment’s notice,” Theeda Murphy, a police reform advocate, said in her complaint, according to The Tennessean newspaper.
“That fact alone brings into question her ability to be an honest broker in any discussion or consideration of [police reform] issues.”
There are two other investigations taking place, regarding how the mayor spent public funds in connection with official trips and public appearances.
Since the sergeant and the mayor often travelled together, officials now want to know whether any of the trips were personal rather than professional.
“There were no policies that were violated. Nothing illegal happened,” Barry said during her news conference.
But the questions linger. And as investigators and the media pore over records, the trickle of salacious details threaten to continue unabated.