Congressman John Rose is decades older than his wife. They were engaged before she graduated college.
He awarded her with a scholarship named for his parents while serving as the foundation board chair at her school
In 2009 Tennessee Tech University junior Chelsea Doss was selected to serve as a national officer in the FFA, the group formerly known as Future Farmers of America. The selection was an honor for Doss, who was majoring in agribusiness. She had been active in the organization since at least high school, and the university interviewed her for a press release highlighting the accomplishment.
During the interview Doss offered effusive praise for one person in particular — John Rose, a 44-year-old Tennessee Tech alum and chairman of the board overseeing university fundraising. He also chaired the board governing the Tennessee FFA’s scholarships and awards. Rose, a software executive and principal of an investment firm, was himself a major financial backer of the university, according to the press release. One of his contributions was a scholarship named after his parents. That year the scholarship was awarded to Chelsea Doss.
“John has made everything possible that I’ve done in FFA beyond high school,” she said in the press release. “Through the scholarship that he provides, I’ve not had to have a job through college. I’ve been able to train, improve, focus on FFA and focus on school. That scholarship has made all the difference.”
She added: “He has also coached me during my preparation, which has been extremely helpful.”
Fourteen months later, a different announcement ran in the Eagleville Times, a small paper in Doss’ home county: Doss and Rose, nearly a quarter century apart in age, were engaged to be married. Doss had not yet graduated college.
More than a decade later Doss and Rose remain married, have two sons, and are by all appearances the heads of a healthy and happy family. There’s no evidence their relationship broke any laws. But Rose now has a new job: he was elected to the U.S. House in 2018.
Rose’s romantic pursuit of a much younger woman over whom he held real authority — not only as a scholarship provider, but also as a foundation board member at institutions Chelsea Doss was part of — raises questions about his ethical sensibilities and attitudes toward power. Those questions are directly relevant to his career in the U.S. House, where he is a Republican member of the Financial Service Committee and legislates on behalf of his constituents and United States citizens as a whole.
But during his initial run for Congress Rose’s relationship with Doss was apparently not scrutinized in local or national press coverage, despite the information being publicly available for over a decade. Now, as elements of the far right attempt to weaponize the term “grooming” in order to portray their political opponents as pedophiles, Rose’s past is being examined. The age difference between John and Chelsea Rose was first publicized by Ryan Cooper, an editor at The Prospect, a progressive magazine.
It is not clear when Rose and Doss first met, or when their relationship became romantic. They likely knew each other no later than January 2008, when a brief in the Eagleville Times notes they both attended a meeting with then-Tennessee governor Phil Bredeson. It was less than a year after Doss had graduated high school.
It’s quite possible they knew each other before then. She was involved in FFA starting in 2003, four years prior to graduation, according to a 2014 press release. That same release also noted John was a “lifelong volunteer” for the organization. Earlier this year he said on Twitter that he’s attended the state FFA conventions for more than 35 years. Their paths may have crossed at one of those conventions, or at other FFA events and activities. Congressman Rose’s office did not respond to repeated requests to clarify when he and Chelsea Doss first met, or when their relationship became romantic.
It’s unclear whether that relationship violated any policies at Tennessee Tech or FFA. The current Tennessee Tech consensual relationship policy became effective in 2017, well after Doss had graduated. The policy states that “consensual relationships between members of the Tennessee Tech community are strongly discouraged when one individual has direct evaluative or supervisory authority over the other. Should this situation occur, the person with authority over the other (e.g., supervisor, faculty) must immediately disclose the relationship.”
It also states that “consensual relationships outside of a direct evaluative or supervisory capacity may also lead to undue favoritism or the perception of undue favoritism, abuse of power, compromised judgment, or impaired objectivity. As such, employees must recuse themselves from involvement in any employment, academic-related, or extracurricular activity decision related to the employee or student with whom the employees have a consensual relationship.”
Representatives from Tennessee Tech did not respond to repeated requests for comment on whether foundation board members like Rose are prohibited from pursuing romantic relationships with students, or whether the Rose scholarship was offered prior to the years Chelsea Doss attended. In 2018 the University recognized Rose with an Outstanding Philanthropy Award.
It’s also unclear whether the relationship violated any FFA policies. Representatives from national and state FFA offices did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
It’s widely acknowledged that relationships like the one between Rose and Doss create unusual power dynamics. Many universities outright prohibit sexual relationships between undergraduate students and adults affiliated with the school. Yale’s policy, for instance, notes that “the unequal institutional power inherent in this relationship heightens the vulnerability of the student and the potential for coercion,” and further states that undergraduate students are “particularly vulnerable” due to their lack of age and maturity.
But most of these policies focus on relationships between students and faculty. As a member of the University foundation board, it’s unclear whether Rose would have been covered by such a policy if one were in place.
These questions on the use and potential abuse of power have a direct bearing on Rose’s philosophy toward the authority he now wields in Congress. But Tennessee press left them largely unasked in the run-up to his first election. According to an individual familiar with Tennessee media and politics, the Tennessee Capitol press corps knew about the age discrepancy and privately joked about it during Rose’s first congressional run. But they generally considered it a family matter and not newsworthy. The details of Rose’s financial support for Doss and his board roles at the time, however, were not widely known, according to the individual.
Rose’s congressional career has traced a fairly standard Trump-era trajectory. He campaigned as a Trump-friendly legislator, and voted against both of the former president’s impeachments. He supported Trump’s voter fraud conspiracies and efforts to overturn the 2020 election. He opposed the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court in part due to what he called her “leniency” in child sex offense cases.
Rose continues to be active with the FFA. He still goes to the state conventions and meets with students involved with the organization. This February he said he’s “proud to support the kids in blue corduroy jackets,” referring to the attire worn by FFA members.
Left unmentioned: not long ago, one of those kids was his future wife.
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