Two Black Democrats who were recently expelled from the Tennessee legislature over their protests on gun control could soon retake their seats.
Both Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis are poised to be reinstated by their local county commissions, which are in charge of addressing legislative vacancies following an expulsion. The Nashville Metropolitan Council will vote on Monday about Jones’s seat and the Shelby County Commission will vote on Wednesday about Pearson’s.
The two are expected to garner the support they need to be reinstated, though their return could be met with Republican retaliation: According to Pearson, the GOP suggested it would gut Memphis funding for government projects if he’s brought back.
Jones and Pearson’s expulsions were both unprecedented and undemocratic, and have quickly become flashpoints in ongoing national debates about democracy and race. Tennessee Republicans argue their behavior in a gun control protest warranted removal from office because it violated House decorum rules. Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, a white woman who also participated in the protest, was not expelled. Republicans claimed her role was less disruptive because she didn’t hold a bullhorn as Jones and Pearson did.
Republicans’ decision to go through with Jones and Pearson’s expulsions and not Johnson’s struck many observers as racist. “I think it’s pretty clear: I’m a 60-year-old white woman. And they are two young Black men,” Johnson told CNN after the expulsions. That perception has only been strengthened by ongoing GOP efforts to curb Black political power in the state, like proposing bills that undermine local legislation in Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville. Republican lawmakers have argued, however, that the expulsions do not have anything to do with race.
Beyond the questions about race the expulsions have caused, they’ve also sent a chilling message about the legislature’s stance on gun control, which Democrats in the state hoped to advocate for in the wake of a mass school shooting last month in Nashville that left three children and three adults dead. And they’ve also meant that Republicans — who in recent years have refused to expel members of their caucus over sex abuse and fraud allegations, citing concerns about disenfranchising voters — have left roughly 140,000 voters in the Nashville and Memphis areas without voices in the state House.
What’s next for Jones and Pearson
The Nashville Metropolitan Council could reinstate Jones as soon as Monday evening. As of this past weekend, 29 of 40 members of the council have said they would support Jones’s return, giving him the simple majority needed to get back his old job.
Pearson is due to face a similar vote from the 13-person Shelby County Commission on Wednesday. Thus far, it’s not clear how many members will back him, but multiple commissioners have already spoken out on his behalf. “I have heard from my constituents, people across the county and state as well as Republicans and Democrats, so I will be voting to reappoint Justin Pearson,” Shelby County Commissioner Erika Sugarmon has said.
The reinstatements are ultimately temporary. Tennessee law requires the districts of expelled lawmakers to hold special elections to officially fill their seats; both Jones and Pearson are allowed to, and expected to, run again. “We will continue to fight for our constituents,” Jones said on Meet the Press this weekend.
Jones and Pearson said that they participated in gun control protests specifically to speak out for constituents who felt they were not represented by the Tennessee legislature’s inaction on the issue after the mass shooting in Nashville. The legislature has said it does not plan to take up any gun control bills this year.
Jones, Pearson, and Johnson faced expulsion resolutions because they went to the House floor during a recent gun control protest, with Jones and Pearson leading protesters demonstrating from the chamber’s gallery in chants using a bullhorn. Those actions violated House decorum rules, Republicans said, and justified their expulsion.
Such consequences are unprecedented. Previously, the Tennessee House had only expelled two lawmakers since the Civil War, one for sexual misconduct and one for bribery. Jones and Pearson’s expulsions marked the first to take place because of a violation of decorum, and also the state’s first partisan expulsions in recent history.
GOP members have said they would recognize Jones and Pearson as members if they are reelected. In Tennessee, lawmakers also can’t be expelled for the same offense for a second time.
“If after looking at [Jones’s] conduct, they vote he come back, we will recognize him as a representative,” Rep. Gino Bulso, one of the Republicans who introduced the expulsion resolutions, told the Tennessean.
The expulsions set a disturbing precedent
The expulsions of Jones and Pearson marked a shocking silencing by Republicans of those who vocally disagreed with them on gun control, and a blatant suppression of opposition voices by members of the majority party.
As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp noted, data suggests Tennessee was already the least democratic state in the US ahead of the expulsions. That same data found GOP control of a state led to an increased embrace of anti-democratic tendencies. And those trends have some pro-democracy advocates — including in the three Democratic lawmakers — concerned the Tennessee GOP’s actions may inspire other Republican-dominant legislatures to use their power to penalize or remove those who they don’t agree with.
The removals are only the latest action by the Republican-dominated Tennessee legislature that restricts Black political power in the state.
Republican lawmakers have introduced bills intended to cut the size of the Nashville City Council in half, and to undermine proposals aimed at police reforms in Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville. Given the sizable Black populations in these cities, Democrats in the state argue many of these proposals are efforts to dilute the voices of Black voters and elected representatives from these areas.
“Welcome to Tennessee, where there’s a pattern of racism that has permeated these halls,” state Rep. Vincent Dixie of Nashville told NBC after the lawmakers’ expulsions.
Pearson and Jones have both called out Republicans’ actions as disenfranchising their constituents and emphasized that they’re undeterred in their ongoing advocacy for gun control. If the two are reinstated this week, they’ve vowed to continue to push for these policies in the face of Republican hostility, and despite the fact their party does not have the votes to affect change unilaterally.
“This is one of the greatest tactics of voter disenfranchisement and voter oppression that I’ve ever witnessed,” Pearson said on ABC’s This Week. “The reality is we have a super-majority Republican legislature that doesn’t want to see progress, that prefers to listen to the NRA rather than the constituents.”