Tennessee Expulsion Vote: 2 of 3 Democratic lawmakers ousted after gun violence protest, 1 allowed to stay
NASHVILLE, TEN — In an extraordinary act of political retaliation, Tennessee Republicans on Thursday expelled two Democratic lawmakers from the state legislature for their roles in a protest demanding more gun control following a fatal shooting at a Nashville school. A third Democrat was spared by a narrow margin of one vote.
The split votes led to accusations of racism, with lawmakers ousting MPs Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, both black, while white MP Gloria Johnson survived the vote to evict her. However, the Republican leadership denied that race was a factor.
The visitors’ gallery exploded in screams and boos after the final vote. After sitting in silence for hours, silencing anyone who cried out during the proceedings, people erupted in chants of “Shame!” and “Fascists!”
Banishment is a measure the Chamber has used only a few times since the Civil War. Most state legislatures have the power to expel members, but this is generally reserved as a punishment for lawmakers accused of serious misconduct and is not used as a weapon against political opponents.
GOP leaders said Thursday’s measures were necessary to avoid setting a precedent that lawmakers’ disruptions of the parliamentary process would be tolerated by protest.
Republican Rep. Gino Bulso said the three Democrats “effectively staged a mutiny.”
At an evening rally, Jones and Pearson pledged to be back at the Capitol next week to advocate for change.
“Instead of passing legislation dealing with red flags and assault weapon bans and universal background checks, they passed resolutions to disfellowship their peers,” Jones said. “And they think the matter is closed. See you on Monday.”
Jones, Pearson and Johnson joined the protest last week as hundreds of protesters packed the Capitol to demand passage of gun control measures. As protesters filled the galleries, the three approached the front of the home’s chamber with a megaphone and joined in a chant. The scene came days after the shooting at Covenant School, a Christian private school that killed six people, including three children.
Pearson told reporters Thursday the three broke a house rule in conducting the protest because we are fighting for children who are dying from gun violence and for people in our communities who want to see an end to the proliferation of guns in our communities .”
Johnson, a retired teacher, said her concern about school shootings was personal, recalling a day in 2008 when students ran toward her from a cafeteria because a student had just been shot.
“You will never forget the trauma in those faces,” she said.
Thousands of people flocked to the Capitol Thursday in support of Jones, Pearson and Johnson, cheering and chanting outside the House chamber loud enough to drown out the proceedings.
The trio held hands as they hit the ground, and Pearson raised a fist during the pledge of allegiance.
Jones offered him an opportunity to defend himself before the vote and said the GOP responded to the shooting with a different type of attack.
“We have all asked you to ban offensive weapons and you are responding by attacking democracy,” he said.
Jones vowed that even if expelled, he would continue to push for anti-gun action.
“I’m going to be out there with the people every week and urging them to take action,” he said.
Bulso accused Jones of acting “disrespectfully” and showing “no remorse.”
“He doesn’t even realize what he did was wrong,” Bulso said. “Not excluding him would simply invite him and his colleagues to engage in a mutiny on the floor of the House.”
The two expelled MPs may not be gone for long. District commissions in their districts can choose alternate members to serve until a special election can be called, and they could choose Jones and Pearson. The two would also be eligible to compete in these races.
Under the Tennessee Constitution, lawmakers cannot be expelled twice for the same crime.
During the discussion, Republican Rep. Sabi Kumar advised Jones to be more collegial and less focused on race.
“You have a lot to offer, but offer it in a way that people will accept your ideas,” Kumar said.
Jones said he did not intend to assimilate in order to be accepted. “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to make a difference in my community,” he replied.
Answering questions from lawmakers, Johnson reminded them that she did not raise her voice or use the megaphone — as did the other two, both new lawmakers and among the youngest members of the chamber.
But Johnson also suggested that race was likely a factor in why Jones and Pearson were ousted, but not her, telling reporters it “could possibly have something to do with the color of our skin.”
This notion was echoed by State Senator London Lamar, a Democrat representing Memphis.
Lawmakers “expelled the two black men and kept the white woman,” Lamar, a black woman, said via Twitter. “The racism on display today! Wow!”
But House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican who voted to expel all three, denied race was involved and said Johnson’s arguments may have swayed other members.
“Our members have literally ignored the ethnicity of the members up for expulsion,” added Majority Leader William Lamberth. He claimed Jones and Pearson tried to stir up a riot last week while Johnson was more cautious.
In Washington, President Joe Biden also criticized the expulsions, calling them “shocking, undemocratic and without precedent”.
“Instead of discussing the merits of the issue (of gun control), these Republican lawmakers have chosen to punish, silence and disfellowship duly elected representatives of the people of Tennessee,” Biden said in a statement.
Before the elimination votes, members of the House discussed more than 20 bills, including a school safety proposal that would require public and private schools to submit building safety plans to the state. The bill did not address gun control and drew criticism from some Democrats for saying it only addresses a symptom and not the cause of school shootings.
Previous elimination votes took place under significantly different circumstances.
In 2019, lawmakers faced pressure to disfellowship former Republican Rep. David Byrd over allegations of sexual misconduct from his time as a high school basketball coach three decades ago. Republicans declined to take action, noting that he was re-elected when the allegations surfaced. Byrd retired last year.
Last year, the state Senate expelled Democrat Katrina Robinson after she was convicted of using about $3,400 in federal grants towards wedding expenses instead of her nursing school.
Before that, lawmakers last ousted a member of the House of Representatives in 2016, when the chamber voted 70-2 to impeach Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham over allegations of inappropriate sexual contact with at least 22 women during his four-year tenure.