What had looked to be a hopeful political story of a progressive woman heading up an iconic Southern city came to a premature end today as Megan Barry resigned as mayor of Nashville as part of a plea agreement with the local district attorney. Her alleged crime (a felony theft charge) was to have asked for reimbursement of travel expenses associated with an admitted affair with the chief of her security detail.
When the story of Barry’s two-year affair with Sergeant Robert Forrest Jr., first broke, she admitted it pretty quickly. Yes, both of the paramours were married to other people at the time (Forrest’s wife has now filed for divorce), but Barry clearly thought she could ride out the scandal as a personal matter. But soon enough the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was checking into the possibility that the lovers had illegally financed their affair through expense reimbursements for travel on the taxpayer’s dime.
It appears that what led to the plea deal was a finding that Forrest had nude and semi-nude cell-phone photos of a woman resembling the mayor from a trip during which he filed for overtime pay. This presumably was treated as evidence that the mayor herself had contrived to make the trip and arranged for Forrest’s presence without a legitimate reason for it. So both pleaded guilty to felony theft charges and will undergo three years of probation and restitution of the illegal reimbursements and overtime pay. More importantly, this lurch in the case from unlawful sex to unlawful use of public money put an end, for the time at least, to Barry’s political career.
There’s never a good time for a sex/financial scandal, but it was particularly bad timing for Barry, whose signature public transportation initiative is going before Nashville voters in May. If it passes, she will not be able to join in the celebration, but if it goes down, her conduct will likely be blamed. And it’s all something of a tragedy for progressive activists in Nashville and in Tennessee, who viewed Barry as having defied the cautious centrist template for Democrats in the state. Many assumed she would have a good chance of going to Congress if local congressman Jim Cooper retires any time soon.
For Barry personally, this calamity comes at the end of a bad stretch for her and her family. Her 22-year-old son died last summer of an apparent drug overdose. She said at the time she hoped to become a voice in the national debate over opioid addiction. Probably won’t happen now, it seems.
Vice-Mayor David Briley, a Barry ally and the scion of a prominent Nashville political family, became mayor upon her resignation, and will presumably be running in an August special election to fill her four-year term, which ends next year.
But he can’t replace Barry as a role model for progressive Southern women making their way in the male-dominated world of politics.
Inevitably, Barry’s name will be added to the list of powerful people brought down by the #MeToo movement’s focus on sexual misconduct with employees, perhaps as a sad testament to the movement’s commitment to gender equality. Had she managed to keep her sex life separate from her work, and perhaps chosen a partner who knew better than to take nude photos of his boss while filing for overtime pay, she wouldn’t have gotten into legal peril and might well have survived politically. But that’s not how the cookie crumbled, and instead Barry provides yet another cautionary tale.