RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Garrett was only months into his second year in Congress in 2018 when he announced he would drop his bid for reelection to seek treatment for alcoholism.
Garrett kept a low profile for the next four years until he announced last November that he would run for the Virginia House of Delegates. But his political comeback has been marked by allegations of abuse in a bitter divorce. His estranged wife, Flanna Sheridan Garrett, has accused him of “a long line of physical and emotional abuses,” including an allegation that he strangled her while she lay in a hotel bed with their infant daughter beside her.
Garrett, who denies the accusations, is among four candidates for state legislative seats in Virginia this year who have been accused of physical violence against women — two during divorce proceedings, one in a pending criminal case and one in criminal cases decades ago that ended with charges being dismissed.
One of the four men lost his bid for reelection to his Senate seat in the primary, but the other three are on the ballot in Tuesday’s high-stakes general election, with control of both the House and the Senate on the line in a state with a narrow political divide.
The accusations have garnered a mixed but relatively muted reaction from members of the candidates’ own parties, although Lisa Sales, president of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women, said voters and Democrats and Republicans alike should be concerned. She noted that none of the candidates has been convicted of a crime, and she said much of the attention in Virginia has been focused on partisan politics, with Democrats holding a slim majority in the Senate and Republicans narrowly controlling the House.
“Domestic and sexual violence is not blue, and it’s not red,” she said. “The parties are scared that it’s going to impact the outcome of the races because the balance of power is so close, and so (they) brush these things under the rug.”
Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said partisan politics may have overtaken character concerns in the fury of the current political moment.
“During the age of Trump, it does seem like a great deal of misconduct is tolerable if the person who is accused of that misconduct is on your partisan team,” Farnsworth said.
Garrett, who did not grant an Associated Press interview request, won the GOP nomination, and with his only competition in Tuesday’s general election two write-in candidates, he appears headed for an easy victory in the heavily Republican 56th District.
In a more competitive legislative race, Democrat Clinton Jenkins has been forced to explain assault and battery charges he faced in the late 1990s and early 2000s — they were ultimately dismissed — after his opponent, Republican Emily Brewer, ran TV ads highlighting the allegations and calling Jenkins a domestic abuser.
Brewer and Jenkins, who continues to receive money and support from fellow Democrats, are competing in a state Senate district that stretches from Hampton Roads into Southside Virginia. Both are current members of the House of Delegates.
Court records show Jenkins was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery of a family member, who in 1997 wrote in a criminal complaint that Jenkins slapped her face, squeezed her head and “said he was going to kill me.”
The records show Jenkins pleaded not guilty and the charge was eventually dismissed.
In 2003, however, he faced a similar charge. A criminal complaint alleged that he grabbed another relative by her jacket collar and then by the throat.
“The choking lasted for 5-10 minutes,” the complaint said. That charge was also eventually dismissed after a not-guilty plea. A separate criminal complaint dated the same day said that on a different occasion, Jenkins told a relative: “’He wanted her to know that he would kill her’ if he had to.”
Jenkins, who did not agree to an interview, ran an ad addressing the allegations generally. It featured his wife and a woman identified as his daughter, who said, “Emily Brewer’s attacks on my dad are bold-faced lies.” A Senate Democratic caucus spokesperson also called Brewer’s ad “the most disgusting lie.”
But when asked by TV station WAVY about the 1997 accusations, he responded: “Well, again, I say all families have disagreements and have ups and downs and challenges.”
Another candidate, Republican Del. Matt Fariss, a member of the House since 2012, was charged in March with swerving his SUV toward a romantic partner who after an argument had gotten out of the vehicle they’d been riding in together, hitting her and leaving her with minor injuries.
Fariss, who has said the allegations against him are false, is charged with two felony counts and a misdemeanor in the alleged hit-and-run and will face trial in January.
The woman testified that she was left bruised, terrified and worried that Fariss would shoot her, according to the media outlet Cardinal News.
Chuck Felmlee, Fariss’ attorney, said that Fariss did not intend to hit the woman but that she bumped into the SUV and fell down. Fariss left because the woman was screaming at him, Felmlee said.
Fariss, who did not file paperwork to seek the GOP nomination in the district south of Lynchburg, is now running as an independent, though it’s unclear how much campaigning he’s doing. His campaign donations have dried up since the charges against him were filed, according to public records, and his website and social media presence show no sign of activity.
The House Republican caucus is supporting GOP nominee Eric Zehr in the deep red district.
Abuse allegations also have surfaced against outgoing state Sen. Joe Morrissey, a Democrat.
Morrissey, a disbarred attorney whose decades in the public spotlight have been marked by an extraordinary degree of scandal, was defeated in a June primary by a candidate who centered her campaign on a pledge to protect abortion rights.
Challenger Lashrecse Aird generally avoided discussing Morrissey’s personal life, even as his estranged wife leveled charges that he had physically assaulted and emotionally abused her. Morrissey has strenuously denied the allegations in multiple AP interviews.
Garrett, too, denies the allegations made by his estranged wife. She claims in court documents that Garrett pulled her hair, pinned her to the ground, punched holes in the walls, struck her in the head on at least two occasions and threatened suicide multiple times to “exert emotional control” over her. He also denies her claim that he strangled her on Mother’s Day in 2018, but he acknowledges in court documents that he began participating in Alcoholics Anonymous weeks later. He accuses his wife of having an uncontrollable temper and claims she once flew into a rage and kicked in a door while he “essentially hid in my older children’s room.”
Jason Seiden, Flanna Garrett’s attorney, declined to comment on the divorce battle, which began in 2019 and remains unresolved, but said his client denies Tom Garrett’s allegations.
Garrett announced his decision to abandon his 2018 congressional bid just days after Politico ran a story in which unidentified former staff members accused him and his wife of ordering employees to perform personal errands, including walking their dog. An ethics committee report found Garrett misused staff time “to serve his personal whims.”
Garrett was unavailable for an interview to discuss his wife’s complaints, his recovery and his reentry into politics until after the election, a campaign staffer said in an email.
Christopher Smith, an attorney representing Garrett in his divorce, said he would relay an interview request to Garrett but did not respond to a follow-up request.