Momentum Builds to Reappoint 2 Tennessee House Democrats After Expulsion

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NASHVILLE — The expulsion of two young Black lawmakers from the Tennessee House of Representatives has set off a wave of outrage among constituents and colleagues who saw it as a stunning act of political retribution by the state’s Republican supermajority.

And with momentum building on Friday to reappoint the ousted lawmakers, Representatives Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin J. Pearson of Memphis, they could be well on their way to retaking their seats in the State Capitol within days.

In a dramatic legislative session that drew shouts of “Shame on you” from the galleries and garnered national attention, the Republican-controlled House voted on Thursday to expel Mr. Jones and Mr. Pearson for interrupting debate last week by using a bullhorn to lead a gun control protest in the chamber. An attempt to expel a third Democratic lawmaker, Gloria Johnson, failed by one vote.

Grief and anger have consumed Nashville since the Covenant School shooting on March 27 that left six people dead. In recent days, hundreds of demonstrators have rallied at the Capitol, demanding action on gun control; on Thursday, enraged protesters overwhelmed the corridors of the state building, chanting their support for the three lawmakers.

The ousting of Mr. Jones and Mr. Pearson set off anger among Democrats well beyond Tennessee. President Biden called the Republicans’ actions “shocking” and “undemocratic,” and Vice President Kamala Harris was scheduled to travel to Nashville on Friday to meet with state legislators.

Asked Friday about the expulsions, Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois said, “There is a threat to democracy that is occurring all across this nation and especially in states that are controlled by Republican governors and Republican majority and supermajority legislatures.”

The expulsions leave thousands of residents of Nashville and Memphis without representation in the House in the final weeks of a legislative session that has seen Republican lawmakers use their supermajority to muscle through their priorities, pitting Tennessee’s conservative rural districts against its more diverse, liberal cities.

With two seats now vacant, the responsibility for appointing interim replacements falls to the local governing bodies in their districts, and leaders in both Nashville and Memphis have indicated their support for selecting Mr. Jones and Mr. Pearson.

The Nashville Metropolitan Council plans to hold a special meeting on Monday on Mr. Jones’s vacated seat, and several members of the council have already pledged to appoint him. Mr. Pearson has said that he wants to return to his seat, too, and local and state leaders have voiced their support.

Representative Torrey Harris, a Memphis Democrat, said on Friday morning that he and other lawmakers planned to meet that evening with commissioners from Shelby County, which includes Memphis, about the process for returning Mr. Pearson to the Capitol.

“What’s best for Shelby County is for Representative Justin Pearson, who was elected by those people, to be sent back up here to continue to represent them throughout the rest of this session,” he said.

For Democratic colleagues of Mr. Pearson and Mr. Jones, as well as some of their constituents, the expulsion of two Black lawmakers and survival of their white colleague had a distinct racial overtone.

After the failed vote to expel her, Ms. Johnson told reporters that the outcome may have been a result of “the color of my skin.”

Outside a grocery store in Nashville on Friday, Samuel Clark, a resident of Mr. Jones’s former district, said he viewed his expulsion as “racially motivated” and evidence of the Republican supermajority’s effort to censure opposition.

Republicans have said that race did not play a role in their decision-making, and some said they were persuaded by Ms. Johnson’s argument that she had not used the bullhorn or shouted as she stood alongside her colleagues.

Seven of the 75 Republicans in the House voted against Ms. Johnson’s expulsion. One of the seven, Representative Lowell Russell, said in a statement that Ms. Johnson should be censured for her “unacceptable conduct” last week, but that “the evidence presented did not warrant her expulsion.”

Representative Sam McKenzie, a Knoxville Democrat and the chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, said he was glad that Ms. Johnson had not been expelled.

“But the world saw the optics,” he said. “I don’t have to say a word about the fact that our two young African American brothers were unfairly prosecuted.”

On Friday, Elizabeth Waites, a resident of Mr. Jones’s former district, drove to the Covenant School to place flowers at its entrance. Ms. Waites had voted for Mr. Jones in the primary and general elections. To her, his expulsion was devastating.

“Justin Jones’s constituents knew who Justin Jones was and that’s who they elected,” she said.

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