DemDaily: What Happened in Tennessee

April 13, 2023

On Thursday, March 30, three State House Democrats in Tennessee led a protest on the floor of the Tennessee legislature, calling for stricter gun safety measures in the wake of the March 27 Covenant Christian Elementary School murder of six people -- including three children -- in Nashville.

With a bullhorn, Representatives Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis led supporters in the gallery in a chant of "No action, no peace," forcing legislative proceedings to a halt.

In retribution, on Monday, April 3, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who compared the three lawmakers to the January 6, 2021 insurrectionists who breached the US Capitol, revoked their ID access to the State Capitol building and stripped two of the three of their committee assignments -- citing violation of House rules of decorum and procedure.

Tennessee Republicans hold a trifecta, in which the GOP controls the offices of governor, the state Senate (27 R/6D) and state House (75R/24D). With additional control of the office of attorney general and secretary of state, they also claim a Republican triplex.

Republicans then filed individual resolutions to formally expel each of the three Democrats, charging them with “knowingly and intentionally [bringing] disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions."

On Thursday, April 6, the House held separate votes on the three resolutions, setting off protests across the state and outrage nationally as networks tuned into the contentious debate.

Jones, 27, who was elected in November, called the expulsion resolution "a spectacle" and "a lynch mob assembled to not lynch me, but our democratic process. We called for you all to ban assault weapons and you respond with an assault on democracy."

Pearson, 28, who won a landslide special election in January to represent parts of Memphis, called the resolution to remove him an "injustice against the First Amendment. Speaking up on behalf of the last, the lost, the least, those who've been left out, those who've been ignored, those who've been silenced but refuse to be silent anymore, that does not deserve expulsion from this House."

The votes to expel Jones and Pearson, who are Black, were overwhelmingly passed by the Republican supermajority, while Johnson survived with seven Republicans joining Democrats in defending her -- falling one vote short of expulsion.

When asked why she thought she had survived the expulsion vote, Johnson, who is White, said, “It might have to do with the color of my skin.”

As the votes were cast, thousands of protesters outside the House chamber and Capitol building chanted “Gun control now,” while crowds inside the gallery burst into angry cries of “Shame on you” and “Fascists!” after the votes.

The events marked the first partisan expulsion in the state's modern history.

In 2021, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (R) signed a bill that allows people 21 and older to openly carry handguns without permits. Last month, Tennessee Republicans introduced legislation to lower that age threshold to 18 and expand the law to include any firearm, not just handguns. Tennessee does not require a waiting period before purchase of a firearm and does not have a "red flag" law permitting removal of firearms from someone presenting a danger to others or themselves. Such a law may have prevented the Covenant massacre.

While special elections have yet to be set for the two technically vacant House seats, the local governing bodies in each district have the power to appoint temporary representatives.

On Monday, April 10, the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Nashville and the surrounding county, voted unanimously to appoint Jones to his seat, and two days later the Shelby County Commission unanimously voted to send Pearson back to his seat as interim representative.

Both are planning to run for a full term in the special elections -- this time, with a national platform and support.

DemDaily: Three More. The Covenant Shooting 3/28/23

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: The Tennessean, New York Times, ABC, Denver Post

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