Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to expel two of their Democratic colleagues after they joined a protest against guns following the Covenant School shooting in Nashville.
Rep Justin Jones of Nashville and Rep Justin Pearson of Memphis were expelled from the Tennessee legislature on Thursday evening after a vote that fell along party lines.
Rep Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, who also faced expulsion for joining the same protest, was not expelled after Republicans failed to get the two-thirds majority of votes needed.
The visitors’ gallery in the Tennessee State House erupted in jeers and boos after the last vote was tallied, while protesters chanted ‘shame on you!’
The two congressional seats previously occupied by Jones and Pearson will now be vacant until a special election is held to replace them. Both representatives are eligible to run for their seats again, and both could be named temporary replacements by special commissions from their district.
Republicans argued that Jones, Johnson, and Pearson, ‘did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor’ to the legislative body when they marched with anti-gun protesters onto the House floor on March 30.
The Republicans, who control a supermajority in the chamber, filed motions to expel the ‘Tennessee Three’ on Monday.
Rep Andrew Farmer, who filed the resolution to expel Pearson, characterized their actions as a ‘temper tantrum.’ Rep Gino Bulso, who filed the resolution against Johnson, argued that not expelling them would encourage others to ‘engage in mutiny on the House floor.’
But the Democrats shot back, arguing that the legislators were simply exercising their First Amendment rights to speak on an issue that has long been silenced in the Republican-dominated chamber.
‘Every Tennessean needs to be concerned that we are not in a democracy,’ Rep Pearson told reporters before the vote began. ‘Across the United States of America, there has been no House members who have never been expelled for exercising their First Amendment rights to peaceful protest.
During his time to respond to questioning by other legislators, Rep Jones noted that the chamber never expelled several congressmen for worse conduct.
‘For years, one of your colleagues, an admitted child molester, sat in this chamber – no expulsion,’ Jones said.
He was referring to retired Rep David Byrd, a Republican from Hardin, who was accused by three women of sexual assault when they were teenage student-athletes on a high school basketball team he coached.
Byrd consistently denied the allegations, but one of his accusers recorded a phone call where he apologized to her, saying: ‘I have been so sorry for that, I’ve lived with that and you don’t know how hard it has been for me.’
Byrd resisted bipartisan calls for his resignation, and survived an attempt to expel him from the House.
Jones said that by voting for expulsion, Republicans were ‘holding up a mirror to a state that is going back to some dark roots. A state in which the Ku Klux Klan was founded is now attempting another power grab by silencing the two youngest black representatives and one of the only women in this body. That’s what this is about. Let us be real today.’
All three representatives accused the House Republicans of contradicting the will of the hundreds of thousands voters who elected them to office. Together, Jones, Johnson, and Pearson represent districts in the three largest cities in the state.
‘You’re not silencing my voice,’ Johnson said. ‘You’re silencing the voice of 70,000 Tennesseans that sent me here, that care deeply about gun violence, and Medicaid expansion, and public schools. And we are continually silenced on the floor on those issues and more.’
Johnson eventually survived the vote for her expulsion, which was only one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed. When asked by a reporter why she thought she was the only member of the group not expelled, Johnson said ‘It might have to do with the color of our skin.’
Pearson agreed with her. ‘You cannot ignore the racial dynamic of what happened today,’ he said. ‘Two young Black lawmakers get expelled and the one white woman does not. That’s a statement in and of itself.’
Jones and Pearson promised to return to the State House to continue protesting for gun reform. ‘They think that the issue is over. We’ll see you on Monday,’ he said.
‘We are still here and we will never quit,’ Pearson said moments before the vote for his expulsion.
President Joe Biden called the move ‘shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.’
‘Rather than debating the merits of the issue, these Republican lawmakers have chosen to punish, silence, and expel duly-elected representatives of the people of Tennessee,’ the president said in a statement released shortly after the vote.
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