WASHINGTON >> U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, the longest-serving member of the Texas delegation, apologized today for a graphic nude photo of him that has spread on social media in the past week and sparked questions about his political future.
Barton, 68, has announced a 2018 re-election bid, but quickly began facing questions as the backlash built about retiring rather than seeking another term. Barton’s congressional and campaign offices did not return calls for comment.
Barton told the Texas Tribune that he was weighing his options, saying, “I am talking to a number of people, all of whom I have faith in and am deciding how to respond, quite frankly.”
If he does choose to bow out after this term, he’d be the seventh Texas incumbent in Congress not planning to return in 2019.
In a public statement, the Republican from Ennis indicated that the image stemmed from an extramarital affair before his divorce two years ago.
“While separated from my second wife, prior to the divorce, I had sexual relationships with other mature adult women,” he said in the statement to the Texas Tribune. “Each was consensual. Those relationships have ended. I am sorry I did not use better judgment during those days. I am sorry that I let my constituents down.”
The nude selfie photo was posted anonymously Monday on at least one muckraking website, and has been making the rounds on Twitter as well, mainly through a blind account purporting to belong to a “100 percent Trump supporter” who believes in God.
The photo, with Barton’s genitals obscured, was accompanied by another depicting an unidentified woman in a polka dot dress, alleged by the anonymous poster to be a lobbyist and a mistress. The tweets appear to have been sent to a number of national and Texas political leaders, including the Twitter account of President Donald Trump.
The Twitter accounts of several Texas media outlets also were contacted. Barton’s statement made no mention of the accompanying picture, which also went viral on the Internet. He confirmed only the authenticity of the full frontal shot of himself — which quickly became an object of online memes and ridicule.
The incident comes amid growing concerns about sexual harassment and misbehavior in Congress, following high-profile accusations of harassment against business and media celebrities.
House Speaker Paul Ryan has spoken to Barton about the matter, Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said, adding that she would “keep those conversations between the two of them,” the New York Times reported.
Nothing in the photo suggests sexual harassment on Barton’s part, unless it could have been an unwanted sexting photo. But no victim has come forward. If the photo was posted by a sexual partner to injure Barton, some GOP strategists say he could be construed a victim under a 2015 Texas revenge porn law.
That law was passed in 2015, the same year of his second divorce. He was married once before and divorced in 1993.
His campaign sits on a $391,543 war chest, according to federal campaign finance records. He was reelected in 2016 with 58 percent of the vote in what is regarded as a safe Republican district.
Amid an expected Republican scramble if Barton does bow out, Democrats signaled that they would make the incident an issue if he runs next year.
“Texans, just like all American people, are tired of poor behavior of elected officials distracting us from the real issues affecting us,” Jana Lynne Sanchez, the best-funded of five Democrats running for Barton’s seat, said in a statement.
“Joe Barton, like all Tea Party extremists, do not (sic) represent the values of our great state and the people of the 6th congressional district. It’s time for new leadership. The swamp needs draining.”
No Republicans have filed to challenge Barton. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 8 percentage points in the 6th Congressional District area, which includes part of Tarrant County, plus all of Ellis and Navarro counties.
Speculation began immediately in North Texas about prospective candidates for Barton’s seat. Among the possibilities being talked about on social media are state Sens. Brian Birdwell of Granbury and Konni Burton of Colleyville.
In order to run in a Texas primary, candidates must file to run by December 11.
If Barton resigns or decides not to run again, it would mean all four of the longest serving members of Congress from Texas are calling it quits. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, and Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano, announced earlier they will retired in 2018. Long-time Houston Democrat Gene Green announced earlier this month he won’t seek re-election.
Others in the delegation also are heading for the exits. Dallas Republican Jeb Hensarling and Atascocita Republican Ted Poe have also announced they won’t seek re-election. U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, is also leaving as he seeks to run for the U.S. Senate against Texas Republican Ted Cruz.
A former oil and gas consultant, Barton has served in Congress since 1985, rising at his peak to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee. Term limited from the position under former House Speaker John Boehner, he sought unsuccessfully to reclaim the committee gavel again last year.
Barton, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, retains a low-level leadership position as a member of the GOP whip operation. He also serves as vice-chairman of the powerful energy committee.
A tea party conservative, he has also made his own way on some contentious issues.
He is the only Texas Republican to sign on to the bipartisan DREAM Act, legislation that would provide legal status to young immigrants brought into the country illegally as minors. He also has been at loggerheads with Republican leaders over his efforts to shield the city of Arlington and the Texas Rangers from the potential loss of millions of dollars in stadium bond tax write-offs that are threatened in the GOP tax plan.
A passionate baseball fan, he manages the GOP congressional baseball team, and was on the field during this summer’s shooting at a team practice.
It was not his first brush with death. He suffered a heart attack in 2005 and was treated at the George Washington University Hospital.
Voted against disaster aid
Although Barton was chosen to help lead a task force to guide federal aid for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts, he was one of several Texas Republicans to vote against a pair of disaster relief packages: one because it was tied to a measure raising the debt ceiling; the other because it bailed out a bankrupt national flood insurance program and was not sufficiently targeted at Texas.
Barton also recently made headlines for telling a constituent to “shut up” during a fractious town hall meeting this year. Over the years, he has sparred with Democrats over his skepticism of human-caused climate change.
In 2010, he made national headlines when he accused the Obama administration of a “$20 billion shakedown” of the BP oil company in an agreement to pay claims to people harmed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Barton also was criticized for appearing to apologize to BP’s chief executive officer as he was about to testify before Congress. Under fire, Barton later withdrew both statements.
While Barton, considered the “dean” of the Texas delegation, could now face calls to resign, some GOP strategists say the incident is more likely to call into question his effectiveness should he decide to run for an 18th term.