Tennessee House expels two Democrats in historic act of partisan retaliation

April 10, 2023

The Republican-led Tennessee House voted on Thursday, April 6, to expel two Black Democratic lawmakers who halted proceedings last week to join protesters in the gallery demanding gun-control legislation after a mass killing.

They did not expel a Caucasian lawmaker, Representative Gloria Johnson (D), who had done the same thing, reports The Washington Post.

In a historic act of partisan retaliation, the chamber voted 72-25 to oust Representative Justin Jones (D), a 27-year-old community organizer elected in November to represent part of Nashville, and 69-26 to expel Representative Justin Pearson (D) of Memphis. Republicans did not have enough votes to remove Johnson, a former teacher from Knoxville who lost a student to gun violence.

After a shooter opened fire at the Covenant School in Nashville on March 27, killing three nine-year-olds and three adults, activists descended on the Tennessee Capitol and demanded that lawmakers pass gun-control legislation. Republicans, who have supermajorities in both chambers, refused to do so. The three lawmakers — dubbed the Tennessee Three—said they joined the protests inside the legislative chamber to speak out for Tennesseans whose voices have been ignored.

The unprecedented effort in response to remove them from office stunned many and marked an escalation in partisan rancor dominating some statehouses. In some cases, Republican-led legislatures have taken steps to marginalize Democrats, particularly over gun control and social issues.

“I recognize that it’s not just about expelling me, but it’s about expelling the people,” Jones said before the vote. “But your action will do the exact opposite. It will galvanize them to see what is happening in the state requires sustained action.”

After the vote that allowed Johnson to remain in the House, reporters asked why she thought she was spared after Jones was ousted. Johnson, who is White, responded: “It might have to do with the color of our skin.” Jones is of Black and Filipino descent, and Pearson is Black.

The three lawmakers did not immediately respond to messages from The Washington Post seeking comment after the votes. Biographical information for Jones and Pearson was immediately removed from the House website, and their seats were listed as “vacant.”

County and city-level officials will select replacements to serve until the next regularly scheduled election in August 2024, said Carrie Russell, a political science senior lecturer at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. The expelled lawmakers will be able to run for reelection at that time, she said.

Bob Mendes, an at-large member of the Nashville Metropolitan Council, tweeted Thursday night that a meeting has been set for Monday to fill Jones’s seat. “I will vote to name Justin Jones back into the State House to represent my constituents,” Mendes tweeted.

The Tennessee House had only expelled members three times previously, according to a report from the office of the state’s attorney general. In 1866, six members were expelled “for the contempt of the authority of this House.” In 1980, a member was expelled for seeking a bribe in exchange for tanking a piece of legislation. And in 2016, a representative was expelled amid state and federal investigations of sexual misconduct.

“The world is watching Tennessee,” Jones said. “What is happening here today is a farce of democracy. What’s happening here today is a situation in which the jury has already publicly announced the verdict.”

Research contact: @washingtonpost