Tennessee Republicans voted on Thursday to expel two Black freshman lawmakers for speaking out of turn in a gun safety protest yet declined to remove a third Democratic lawmaker, who is white and who participated in the same demonstration on the state House floor last week.
Republicans’ effort to remove the Democrats has caught national attention for its political brazenness and unprecedented use of power in an American statehouse.
Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were expelled in a vote largely along party lines, an effort to oust them led by the GOP supermajority. Rep. Gloria Johnson escaped removal from office because Republicans failed to gather the necessary two-thirds-majority support.
When asked by reporters why Johnson was the only lawmaker to evade expulsion, she answered: “it might have to do with the color of our skin.”
Their offense was joining protesters who gathered in Nashville last week to call for gun safety reform in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting that left seven dead, including the shooter. The members approached the lectern without being called on by House GOP leadership and toted a bullhorn to lead chants on the House floor, a stunt that temporarily suspended legislative business. House Speaker Cameron Sexton later likened their behavior to “an insurrection.”
Following the final vote removing Pearson, the public viewing gallery exploded into screams of “fascists” and “shame on you.”
Republicans dominate both chambers in the state Legislature, and the GOP reinforced its supermajority in the midterms by picking up more seats in the House. Democrats hold just 23 seats to Republicans’ 75.
Dubbed “the Tennessee Three” by fellow Democrats, Jones, Johnson and Pearson represent the three largest cities in Tennessee.
Ahead of the vote, Jones, a freshman lawmaker and community organizer, admonished Republicans for not enacting gun reform laws after multiple tragedies — inaction he said has sparked a movement for change.
“Your flexing of false power has awakened a generation of people who will let you know your time is up,” Jones, 27, warned Republicans.
A number of Republicans questioned Jones over the order of events the day of the protests, trying to pin them down on rule violations. Republican Rep. Gino Bulso, a sponsor of the expulsion resolutions, said that Jones “shows no remorse” when addressing the chamber before the vote.
Johnson, a former teacher, told the story of the school shooting she experienced several years ago where one student died. “The trauma on those faces, you will never, ever forget,” Johnson said of the students.
Johnson, in tears, recited the names of the victims killed in the recent shooting at a private school in Nashville.
Pearson, 28, chastised GOP leadership for pursuing the expulsion resolutions with a “dogged determination” instead of considering gun safety legislation like red flag or safe storage proposals.
“That’s what I will continue to call for, to ask for, to demand because we can do it,” he said.
In a video of the protest played before the votes, Johnson was standing beside Jones and Johnson, but she wasn’t as vocal as the pair and not seen using the bullhorn in the footage. Johnson has served in the state House since 2019; she also served a prior term from 2013 to 2015 before being unseated.
The move by Republicans is remarkable for its naked partisanship and the speed with which it was executed. The process of removing lawmakers is usually a bipartisan undertaking in most states, often involving internal investigations following criminal charges or ethical lapses. In Tennessee, only two other House members have been removed before today’s proceedings, both after criminal violations or sexual misconduct.
Should all three members be expelled, special elections will be held in the three districts encompassing Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis. Nothing would hold those members back from running again in those races. Johnson suggested in an interview with POLITICO that if she’s voted out, she would try to return to the statehouse if her constituents desired it. The state constitution forbids lawmakers from being removed from office twice for the same offense.
GOP leadership could also face a lawsuit from the members, although it’s unclear at this point what grounds they could sue on.
The drama has skyrocketed the three to the national stage as Democrats have rallied around them and tried to steer that attention toward enacting gun reform laws in Tennessee and beyond. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that Tennessee Republicans are “shrugging in the face of yet another school shooting.”
The expulsion vote marks “just another anti-democratic effort to silence the American people for speaking out against the devastating consequences of gun violence,” Neha Patel, co-executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, a nonprofit supporting progressive state lawmakers, said in a letter released Thursday that was signed by hundreds of lawmakers from across the country.
Jones, talking with reporters after his expulsion, said the proceedings do “not seem like America.”
“To expel voices of opposition and dissent is a signal of authoritarianism and it is very dangerous,” he said.
Jones and Pearson’s photos and biographies were promptly removed from the state legislature website.