URBANA, Ohio — Voters in this small town, a camera-ready county seat cut from the mold of a 1960s-era television set, believe in their congressman. Representative Jim Jordan calls this home, and his fellow Urbanans believe he is a man of integrity. They believe his family, a dynasty of wrestling icons, has served the community well.
And whatever questions may linger about what he knew and what he could have done while a team doctor sexually abused Ohio State University wrestlers under his supervision, they are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“He may have had an inkling, but certainly not for the time an actionable one,” said Don Saunders, a retired medical professional eating at the counter of the Rock’n Robin Diner. “You got to understand, especially at Ohio State, it’s gotten to be very progressive in its political views. Things that would not be an unusual occurrence then, now, they get into a huge uproar. Even though not appropriate, people dealt with it and moved on.”
Ohio State, less than an hour from here, is a religion in central Ohio, but Mr. Jordan, a pugilistic conservative and Trump attack dog in perpetual shirt sleeves, is an institution. Constituents here have watched with anguish as Mr. Jordan has become ensnared in the sexual abuse scandal, which gained new life last month when a 182-page report released by the university said dozens of coaches acknowledged that rumors of the doctor’s predatory behavior were rife.
Five wrestlers who worked with Mr. Jordan in the late 1980s and early 1990s came forward last summer to say that the congressman knew of Dr. Richard H. Strauss’s abuse, which included ogling athletes while they showered and fondling their genitals under the guise of medical treatment. One wrestler, Dunyasha Yetts, said that Mr. Jordan on one occasion confronted the doctor with the team’s head coach about being too “hands on” with the students, and on a second occasion disregarded a comment that he had made about the doctor’s inappropriate behavior. That second episode was corroborated by two other wrestlers who witnessed it.
But while Mr. Jordan’s legion of partisan enemies derisively adopt the new nickname “Gym,” his impassioned self-defense — a vehement and outright denial that he knew of any hint of misconduct — has stuck with the people who matter most: his voters.
His conservative constituents, by dint of the gerrymandered contours of his district, were all but predestined to support him. Ohio’s Fourth Congressional District is 90 percent white and shaped roughly like a duck, with its bill on the western exurbs of Cleveland, a foot on the outskirts of Columbus and its head nudging Toledo, not close enough to absorb any urban voters. But in the rural western towns of the district, admiration for Mr. Jordan takes on a profound intensity, built on a foundation of personal experiences with him and an unshakable belief in his integrity.
Over breakfast at the Rock’n Robin, a 1950s-style diner outfitted with a jukebox, checkered floors and a plaque commemorating the 249-episode run of “The Andy Griffith Show” — a nod to the town’s self-described identity as a neo-Mayberry — voters regardless of political affiliation offered their defenses of their congressman.
“Even though we don’t vote for him, we believe him,” said Racille Smith, who identified herself as among the “few Democrats” in the city. “He’s never had any other kind of scandal or suspicion. He just worked there part time and got dragged into it.”
“It’s a conservative community, but it’s a family-oriented community,” her husband, James Smith, added by way of explanation. “Most folks that vote for Jim know his family, know his parents.”
If the residents of Urbana see themselves as a modern-day Mayberry, then many have built up Mr. Jordan as their morally unimpeachable sheriff.
“We love Jim; he’s a good, solid man,” said Laurie Schafer, a waitress behind the counter at the Rock’n Robin. “He raised good children. I couldn’t imagine him knowing something like that and not doing anything.”
Ms. Schafer shook her ponytailed head in disgust. Stories about Mr. Jordan’s involvement in the scandal, she said while pouring coffee, are “just trying to make people hate him.” He had helped her son when he was wrestling in high school, giving him pointers and advice, and so for her, the issue was personal.
“The opposition uses the media to destroy people with lies,” she said.
Perhaps unwittingly, Ms. Schafer was reciting an argument Mr. Jordan himself offered when he first stared down accusations that he turned a blind eye to the abuse, arguing that he was a victim of “deep state” liberal bureaucrats embedded in the government.
Her skepticism extended to the abuse scandal at the university itself. Investigators hired by Ohio State found that 177 men were abused by the doctor, who lured both athletes and infirmary patients into sexual situations by insisting he was medically examining them. Ms. Schafer simply replied, “I would have to talk to the 177 myself.”
Last summer, as accusations mounted in the middle of Mr. Jordan’s re-election campaign, his Democratic challenger, Janet Garrett, had weighed whether to attack him on his involvement in the scandal. But the university’s report had not yet come out, and the campaign’s internal polling reflected Ms. Schafer’s apprehension. Voters were “not very convinced by the scandal,” Ms. Garrett’s former campaign manager, Zach Stepp, said in an interview.
Now, Mr. Stepp, the executive director of a political action committee working to unseat Mr. Jordan, believes the report gives Democrats a new opening.
“This report that came out is incredibly damning. We want to make sure people know about it and are reading it,” he said. “Even if only 10 percent of people find it convincing, I want 100 percent of people to know what is in the report and that their congressman was affiliated with it.”
In Trumpian fashion, however, Mr. Jordan declared that the report exonerated him, just as he and the president declared the Mueller report had given Mr. Trump the all clear. And even in Urbana, the largest city in the district closest to the university, the findings of the report and the extent of the scandal, blasted on national cable channels, has yet to fully seep in.
Jackie Tullis, a nurse at Ohio State who stopped for coffee at The Depot Coffee House, a cafe in a restored 19th-century train depot, expressed sympathy for the victims but was shocked to learn from a reporter that they numbered over 100. Underscoring what is likely to be a bleak reality for any of Mr. Jordan’s political opponents, Ms. Tullis drew a bright line between the scandal and the congressman. She grew up with Mr. Jordan’s wife, she said, and the couple both came from good families. The scrutiny now on him struck her as bitterly unjust.
“The way they’re approaching these things now seems like you’re trying to blame someone, and they weren’t even involved in it,” Ms. Tullis said. “I don’t think that’s fair to him.”
“That’s like saying Urban Meyer was responsible for Zach Smith’s behavior,” she continued, referring to Ohio State’s former football coach who was suspended after an investigation revealed he had protected a longtime assistant with a history of domestic abuse. “I don’t agree with that.”
Alyssa Beaty, a waitress at the Rock’n Robin diner, said she had not been closely following the Ohio State abuse scandal and had no idea what to believe. But what she did know, she said, was that voters in Urbana “would turn their heads for him.”