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A look back at Megan Barry’s career.
Ayrika Whitney/USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee

NASHVILLE — The future of Nashville’s biggest political rising star is now in question. 

The final, practical ramifications of Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s affair with the head of her security detail are unknown. Barry admitted to an affair with police Sgt. Robert Forrest Jr. on Jan. 31. 

While the mayor denies breaking any laws or policies, if the ongoing law enforcement and city council investigations find official or financial misconduct, it will almost certainly end the 54-year-old’s burgeoning political career.

Even if Barry is cleared, Tennessee Democrats are faced with a harsh truth: One of the most promising players on the party’s not-so-deep bench may be forever tainted. 

Feb. 6: Nashville mayor routinely traveled without security before affair, records show

Feb. 6: Nashville mayor backed daughter of affair partner for city job

A prominent Tennessee Democrat running for governor doesn’t think it’s a good idea to campaign with Barry right now. 

“It’s a tough deal. I don’t know if I would want to put her in a position to be out in public, trying to talk about issues on my behalf when probably the conversation would turn to the current situation,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley, Tenn. 

“It wouldn’t work out very well for either one of us.”

Several prominent Nashville and Tennessee Democrats who are Barry supporters declined to comment or did not respond to questions for this story.

Kelly Dittman is a political science professor at Rutgers University-Camden and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. On Friday, Dittman said there are different expectations for how the public tends to expect male and female politicians to respond to honesty and ethical questions. 

“Rooted in gender stereotypes, these expectations can amplify any ethical violation by women and make the fall from the presumed pedestal on which women are often placed harder. In observing how Mayor Barry is treated and evaluated in both the short and long term for her own mistakes, it’s important to check these potential biases,” said Dittman. 

Feb. 4: Mayor Megan Barry wants to earn Nashville’s forgiveness. Experts say that isn’t up to her.

Feb. 1: Can Nashville mayor weather a sex scandal?

“For what it’s worth, I do think Mayor Barry responded in the way that research has shown is most effective for women who do make mistakes on the campaign trail or in office. She admitted to the mistake, apologized, and has sought to move on to the business of governing,”

It’s far from certain Barry would even endorse Fitzhugh in a primary that also features former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. But in a general election, any Democrat would almost certainly try to leverage Barry and her base in the form of fundraising and driving voter turnout. 

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Nashville’s city council will appoint a special committee with subpoena power to investigate whether there was improper use of public money during Mayor Megan Barry’s affair with her former top security officer.
Michael Schwab

If Democratic statewide candidates have any shot at winning this fall, they’ll need to convince each and every left-leaning voter in Tennessee’s metropolitan areas to head to the polls.

Massive voter turnout in Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville is vital, and the people best positioned to spearhead those efforts are the cities’ mayors. Especially if the mayor has a 72% approval rating, as Barry did in a Vanderbilt University poll conducted in March 2017.  

Dean downplayed talk of any endorsements.

Jan. 31: Nashville Mayor Megan Barry admits to extramarital relationship with top police security officer

Aug. 8: Nashville mayor opens up about son’s drug use, death in return to work

“Mayor Barry is a great campaigner, but we are not at that stage in the campaign and have not discussed this with her or her office,” Dean said in an email Friday morning. 

In contrast, Republican gubernatorial candidates in an admittedly far more crowded primary field have rolled out more than 100 endorsements of county mayors and other local elected officials. 

Gubernatorial candidates face voters in a few months. While Barry is not up for re-election until 2019, the next few weeks will impact her viability. 

In a statement, Barry spokesman Sean Braisted said the only election with which the mayor is currently concerned is the transit referendum set for a vote May 1. 

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Before the scandal, failure to win voter approval for the possible $8.95 billion transit plan would have spurred a mayoral challenger, said local political analyst Pat Nolan. 

“If the transit thing passes, it certainly increases her chances to show she has regained enough support and trust from the voters,” Nolan said. 

Barry said she will not resign. Nolan said Barry would not have publicly asked for Nashville to forgive her if she did not want to run for re-election. 

Asked whether Barry will run for re-election, Braisted said, “she will announce her re-election plans at the appropriate time.” 

Before the admission of the affair, such a question would have seemed ludicrous. In recent history, Nashville mayors faced no real opposition en route to securing a second term. 

July 30: Nashville mayor’s son, 22, dies from apparent drug overdose

Additionally, Barry had $338,000 in her campaign account as of Jan. 31. She received more than $146,000 in the last six months of 2017.

Tennessee state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat and a rising star in his own right, said he didn’t see what he called Barry’s “personal issues” affecting Tennessee Democrats’ fundraising or political fortunes in 2018. 

“What she wants to do with her future is for her and her alone to decide,” Clemmons said. 

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini did not answer questions about the impact of Barry’s affair on the party. 

“The mayor has admitted her mistake and is taking responsibility for her actions,” Mancini said in a statement. 

Investigations and lingering questions remain. Nashville Councilwoman Burkley Allen is a Barry ally, but she wasn’t ready to predict whether the mayor can come out of the scandal as politically strong as she was before. 

“It’s going to be very difficult. She’s a very smart and amazing woman. It’s going to take getting everything right to make it happen,” said Allen.  

Follow Dave Boucher on Twitter: @Dave_Boucher1

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