David Byrd is known around the Tennessee capitol as “Coach.” It’s a throwback to the 24 years he spent coaching the Wayne County High School girls basketball team, before he was elected state representative in 2014. Byrd is such a beloved figure in his hometown of Waynesboro that the high school dedicated the basketball court in his name. He was re-elected for the second time with 78% of the vote last year — even after three women came forwardwith stories about how Byrd made sexual advances against them when they were teenagers and he was their coach in the 1980s.
One of the women, Christi Rice, revealed a recording she made of Byrd apologizing to her in a phone call. “I’ve punished myself so much for that,” Byrd said in the recording, though he doesn’t explain what he means by “that.” As the women came forward last March, Byrd did not explicitly deny the allegations against him. Instead, he issued a statement at the time noting that he hadn’t done anything wrong while in office, and said people should “question the motives of these three former students out of the hundreds of students I have coached.”
“Conduct over 30 years ago is difficult, at best, to recall, but as a Christian, I have said and I will repeat that if I hurt or emotionally upset any of my students I am truly sorry and apologize,” Byrd’s statement said. “I do not believe either of these ladies can show that they made a report to the authorities or received any subsequent mental health counseling for what they have alleged but, again, if my acts or omissions cause them distress I am truly sorry.” Byrd did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Many public officials accused of sexual misconduct in the past two years either resigned or were voted out of office, events often celebrated as evidence of the power of victims coming forward. But for Byrd, a Republican from the most pro-Trump county in Tennessee, the situation has displayed a dramatically different scenario. Not only has Byrd stayed in office, he has enjoyed vocal defenses from multiple GOP colleagues. The American Conservative Union, the group best known for hosting the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, gave Byrd an award in February. (The group did not return Teen Vogue’s request for comment.) As a reporter waited in a hallway earlier this year to ask Byrd about the allegations, Kent Calfee, a GOP lawmaker, stopped to point out that Byrd “got re-elected by a huge number,” and asked, “Why don’t y’all get off of him?” Calfee did not return Teen Vogue’s request for comment.
Byrd was promoted to chair of an education subcommittee in January. When a group of female activists showed up at a committee hearing in February to protest Byrd’s promotion — each holding 8.5 by 11 inch pieces of paper in front of their chests with statements like “Resign Byrd” and “Survivor Against Byrd” — they were chastised by Jerry Sexton, a Republican state representative who also didn’t respond to a request for comment. “I think it’s a shame that you can pick certain individuals to pick out and demean,” Sexton said to them before state troopers escorted the women out of the hearing.
The activists, who were working with the Enough is Enough Voter Project, believe that a large reason why Byrd has not resigned is because of Glen Casada, who announced on Tuesday, May 21, that he plans to step down as Tennessee’s Speaker of the House in light of a controversies involving lewd and racistbehavior by one of his top aides and after a vote of no-confidence from his party. Casada ran ads through his political action committee last fall calling the accusations against Byrd “fake news.” He was captured on video in February downplaying the allegations against Byrd, and stated, “if I was raped, I would move.”
“Casada basically propped Byrd up,” Rice, one of Byrd’s accusers, told Teen Vogue. “I really feel like he would’ve resigned if not for him.” She has said that when she was 15, Byrd touched her inappropriately and kissed her multiple times, and told her he wanted to see her naked. Rice told her story to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in a private meeting in March, but he has refused to say what he thinks about Byrd.
The fact that Byrd remains in office without criticism from Republican leaders in Tennessee shows the limits of #MeToo in a conservative part of the South, especially in a small town where high school athletics reign supreme and even people who believe the women’s accusations are fearful of what would happen to them if they said so publicly.
“One person said to me that part of it is we’re a rural community,” Rice told Teen Vogue. “The only thing we really have is athletics and he was a successful basketball coach. That was our saving grace, what the community was known for, and for me to put a black mark on that was a horrible thing regardless of what happened.”
But the Enough is Enough activists won’t let that excuse stop them. They have vowed to keep the pressure on Tennessee lawmakers until Byrd is out of office, and in the past few months, they’ve shown what that looks like.
They stood outside the capitol in January dressed as characters from the “Handmaid’s Tale” with a banner reading “Casada Protects Men Who Abuse Women,” and a week later showed up at Bill Lee’s inauguration as governor holding large cut out letters spelling “Casada Protects Abusers.” In March, they read excerpts during breaks in committee hearings from a recording in which Byrd apologized to Rice for his actions when he coached her. A group of women sat outside of Lee’s office at the capitol in April until state troopers arrested five of them for refusing orders to leave. To make sure Lee knew what they wanted with their protest, they put up a billboard in the Nashville area demanding Lee call for Byrd’s resignation. At the end of April, they hounded lawmakers over their support for Byrd at events around the NFL draft, which was being held in the city. On Monday, May 20, the group purchased a new billboard ad calling for both Byrd and Casada to leave office.
Casada and the governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment by Teen Vogue. Neither did 16 other Republicans in the Tennessee legislature, who serve in leadership positions and on committees with Byrd, that were contacted for this story.
“It’s frustrating when you see a government that is just beating their chest on their religious and moral virtues and then they don’t want to address an issue on this magnitude,” Rice said. “It sets precedent, it sets a standard that other men can do this and get by with this. Political leaders should hold one another accountable — that’s the only way anyone is going to change this behavior.”
Rice explained to Teen Vogue that she decided to come forward after a couple of statements Byrd made. First, he expressed outrage over news in November 2017 that the University of Tennessee wanted to hire Greg Schiano as football coach. Schiano was accused offailing to report Jerry Sandusky’s molestation of children when they worked together at Penn State in the 1990s, though Schiano denies it.
Then in January 2018, the WSMV TV station ran a story revealing that Byrd was part owner of a juvenile detention facility where teens had alleged they were abused and received improper care. Byrd said “it is always important to look into allegations of misconduct, especially when it involves our children,” but the staff at the facility shouldn’t be “harassed by unsubstantiated claims.”
Rice felt like Byrd was being a hypocrite, so she decided to go public. She and two other women told their stories to WSMV that spring. Rice didn’t expect much to happen, but then Michele Dauber called her.
Dauber, a Stanford Law professor who led the successful effort to remove the judge who sentenced Brock Turner to sixmonths in jail (of which he served three months) for his sexual assault conviction, had launched the Enough is Enough Voter Action Project. She had gotten in touch with local activists and wanted to support an effort to make sure Byrd’s constituents knew about the sexual misconduct allegations. A group of local volunteers canvassed Byrd’s district with Enough is Enough organizers, going door-to-door to talk to people about Byrd.
“We weren’t asking people to vote Democrat, we were just asking people to leave that spot blank,” Kristina Richardson, a constituent of Byrd’s who canvassed in his district, told Teen Vogue. “We were telling them we’re bipartisan — it doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat or Republican or whatever, sexual abuse is unacceptable.”
Byrd was seemingly unfazed. After the allegations emerged, campaign contributions continued to roll in from private prison corporations, the Tennessee Bankers Association, housing and realty groups, and the Tennessee Education Association, according to public records. Casada, then the majority leader in the state house, helped out by running ads on social media claimingthat the women canvassing Byrd’s district were “socialist Democrats” who were bused in to “control our election,” which wasn’t true.
“Dude, I’m on a cattle farm next door — I’m not coming from anywhere like California,” Ashley Massey, another Enough is Enough activist from Byrd’s district, told Teen Vogue.
Still, it seemed like the attacks worked. According to Emily Tseffos, one of the Enough is Enough organizers, there were a couple people who stated “Oh, I know about you” and shut the door as soon as the canvassers mentioned Byrd’s name. Rice told Teen Vogue that people have privately admitted to her, “I’m rooting for you, but I can’t say anything in my position because I’ll lose all my business.”
The Enough is Enough activists said they weren’t entirely surprised that Byrd held onto his support and was re-elected. It’s such a heavily GOP district that Democrats usually don’t bother to run. Research has shown that liberals are more likely to condemn sexual harassment, while conservatives appear more likely to prioritize loyalty over social change. A majority of Republican men said in one national survey last October that they would vote for a candidate accused of sexual misconduct by multiple people.
Few lawmakers have called for Byrd’s resignation. One of these is is Gloria Johnson, a Democratic representative from Knoxville, Tennessee, and she said Casada found ways to get back at her for it. During debate in March over a controversial bill to ban abortions once a heartbeat is detected, Johnson stood with her hand up for 45 minutes in hopes of speaking and offering an amendment to add exceptions for rape and incest. Casada refused to call on her. She approached him afterward and asked why.
“It was because of my speaking out against Byrd,” Johnson told Teen Vogue. “He accused me of organizing a rally that took place when the women first went into the committee hearing.” Johnson had nothing to do with the organizing, but had sat near the activists during one of the hearings to offer her silent support, she said. “I had not nothing to do with organizing, but the speaker is incredibly retaliatory.”
Casada removed Byrd from his post as chair of the education administration subcommittee in late March, but continued to defend Byrd from the allegations. “I believe we have two sacred rights in this country,” Casada said at the time. “One, you are innocent until proven guilty, and two, the people make their will known at the voting box.”
“That is such a ridiculous argument to me — voters aren’t a jury,” Johnson told Teen Vogue. “There’s enough there to say this person should not be serving in the legislature, and they certainly shouldn’t have power over all the kids in the state.”
Casada decided to resign from his role as speaker in light of a separate controversy with his staff, but he has not announcedplans to vacate his legislative seat. In early May, local news outlets reported that Cade Cothren, who spent the past decade working for Casada in various roles, used cocaine in the legislature’s offices, exchanged vulgar texts about women with Casada, used the N-word and stated to friends in a text message that “black people are idiots.” Casada had previously defended Cothren, calling the texts between the two “locker room talk.”
By this point, Rice had tried for months to meet with Casada to talk about David Byrd. But in phone calls this month, recordings of which were obtained by Teen Vogue, Casada’s staff told Rice that she wouldn’t be allowed to bring a support person with her to a meeting with him.
“The only way the Speaker will meet with you is if it’s a one-on-one meeting, and we will have a female staff member present as well,” an aide for Casada told Rice in one call.
Casada’s office eventually relented and would allow Rice to bring someone, but according to the Enough is Enough organizers, they didn’t do so until it was too late.
With Casada stepping down from leadership, the activists hope they’re getting closer to pushing Byrd out of office.
“We’re glad Casada is being forced out,” Emily Tseffos said. “But three women say Byrd sexually molested them. He can’t stay in office. The GOP needs to finish the job and remove him.”
Credit: Teen Vogue