By Ashley Pickus, National Politics Reporter
Photo: Tennessee Statehouse
Declarations of fascism rang throughout the chamber of the Tennessee House of Representatives on April 3 as House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) called for a vote on three resolutions to expel three Democrats for “disorderly behavior” (Brown and Jones 2023). Democratic Representatives Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson, who collectively represent more than 200,000 constituents, faced the expulsion vote on April 6 that resulted in Jones and Pearson losing their seats.
The events leading to the unprecedented expulsion of two House members started with the mass shooting in Nashville on March 27 where six people were killed, including three children (Brown and Jones 2023). This reignited the long-running debate over gun control laws (or lack thereof). The Republican Governor of Tenessee responded to the shooting with a proposal of “$155m to place an armed security guard at every public school in Tennessee and to boost security presence at both public and private schools” (Yousif, Drenon and Goh 2023). Unsatisfied, more than 1,000 peaceful protesters, including hundreds of young people and their parents, gathered at the Tennessee Capitol on March 30 in support of gun control laws. There were no injuries, property damages, or arrests (Jones and Brown 2023). The controversy began when Representatives Jones, Pearson, and Johnson disrupted proceedings by leading protestors into the gallery with bullhorns.
“Any time we brought it up, our microphones were cut off,” Jones told NPR. “We were ruled out of order. And so we did not have even a venue to voice the grievances of our community. And so we had no other choice but to do something out of the ordinary and to try and stand in solidarity with disrupting business as normal because business as normal was sticking our head in the sand when our children are dying” (Ryan, Jarenwattananon and Kelly 2023).
Republicans quickly condemned the three representatives. Representative Sexton denounced the actions of the “Tennessee Three,” comparing their actions to those that participated in the January 6 insurrection (Jones and Brown 2023). Republican Representative Jody Barrett supported this assessment, telling NPR that “if you boil it down to what actually happened, both incidents were an attempt to interrupt a governmental activity or proceeding” (Ryan, Jarenwattananon and Kelly 2023).
Republicans swiftly stripped Jones and Johnson of their committee positions (Pearson did not serve on any committees) and restricted the three’s access to the Cordell Hull Legislative Office Building and parking garage (Brown and Jones 2023). Three resolutions to expel the representatives passed on April 3 and the votes on each were held on April 6. Each representative was given an opportunity to defend themselves.
Jones was the first to take the floor. In a speech before the vote, he said, “This is not about expelling us as individuals. This is your attempt to expel the voices of the people from the people’s house. It will not be successful,” Jones said. “Your overreaction, your flexing of false power has awakened a generation of people who will let you know that your time is up.” He was expelled from the House by a vote of 72-25 (Breen 2023).
Next was Pearson, who remarked, “We have heard from thousands of people asking us to do something about gun violence,” Pearson said. “What it is in the best interest of our people is ending gun violence.” He was expelled by a vote of 69-26.
Before her vote, Johnson referenced past scandals that did not result in expulsion. “We had a child molester on the floor for years, they helped him get reelected and did nothing to expel him,” Johnson said. “We’ve had members pee in each other’s chairs. We’ve had members illegally prescribe drugs to their cousin-mistress, and nothing happened. But talk on the floor without permission, and you’ll get expelled.” Johnson kept her seat by one vote; she is also the only one of the three who is white. “I think it’s pretty clear: I’m a 60-year-old White woman. And they are two young Black men,” Johnson told CNN.
In his interview with NPR, Barrett denied that race played a factor in his decisions. “In my view as an attorney, then it was incumbent upon the debate to present evidence to correct that and to establish clearly what it was that Ms. Johnson did to rise to the level of expulsion,” Barrett said. “I just don’t think that we established that during the debate.”
In the aftermath of the expulsions, prominent Democrats across the United States voiced their reactions. President Joe Biden issued a statement after the votes: “Today’s expulsion of lawmakers who engaged in peaceful protest is 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.” He also held a private conference call with Jones, Pearson and Johnson (Loller, Hall and Miller 2023).
Former President Barack Obama tweeted, “What happened in Tennessee is the latest example of a broader erosion of civility and democratic norms. Silencing those who disagree with us is a sign of weakness, not strength, and it won’t lead to progress.”
Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Nashville on April 7. Along with privately meeting with the three representatives, Harris spoke at Fisk University, Nashville’s historically Black university that Jones attended.
“Let’s understand the underlying issue is about fighting for the safety of our children,” Harris said. “It’s been years now where they are taught to read and write and hide in a closet and be quiet if there’s a mass shooter at their school, where our children, who have God’s capacity to learn and lead, who go to school in fear.”
Jones and Pearson will not be out of politics for long. The procedure after the expulsion of a House member directs the representative’s district to choose an interim replacement until an election is held; there are no rules that prohibit the council of the district from choosing the expelled member to be appointed back to the House (Yousif, Drenon and Goh 2023). The representatives are also able to run again when the special elections are held.
On April 10, Nashville’s Metro Council “unanimously voted to reinstate freshman Democrat Justin Jones to his seat in the Tennessee House” (Abrams 2023). Two days later on April 12, the Shelby County Commission unanimously voted to reappoint Justin Pearson (Gutierrez and Breslin 2023). Both Jones and Pearson have been sworn in, reuniting the “Tennessee Three” in the state House.
Ashley Pickus is a junior from Plainview, New York. She is double-majoring in political science and English rhetoric and minoring in writing studies. Ashley spends most of her free time following the current pop culture trends, watching television shows, or listening to music. If asked, she can explain the meaning of any Taylor Swift song and its significance. After graduation, Ashley hopes to find a job in the media industry.
Abrams, Cynthia. 2023. “Tennessee rep. Justin Jones returns to Capitol after Nashville Council reinstates him.” NPR, April 10. https://www.npr.org/2023/04/10/1169154500/tennessee-rep-justin-jones-unanimously-reappointed-to-house-by-nashville-council.
Biden, Joe. 2023. “Statement from president Joe Biden on expulsion of Tennessee lawmakers for acting on Gun Safety.” The White House, April 7. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/04/06/statement-from-president-joe-biden-on-expulsion-of-tennessee-lawmakers-for-acting-on-gun-safety/.
Breen, Kerry. 2023. “What to know about the ‘Tennessee Three’: Why were two of the Democratic lawmakers expelled, and what happens now?” CBS News, April 10. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/tennessee-expulsion-house-democrats-expelled-what-happens-now/.
Breslin, Ryan and Carmyn Gutierrez. 2023. “Justin Pearson sworn back into Tennessee House.” WSMV, April 13. https://www.wsmv.com/2023/04/13/rally-reappointed-lawmaker-justin-pearson-ahead-swearing-in-ceremony/.
Brown, Melissa and Vivian Jones. 2023. “Tennessee GOP begins expulsion process for 3 Democrats, House session devolves into Chaos.” The Tennessean, April 5. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2023/04/03/tennessee-republicans-file-resolutions-to-expel-three-democrats-who-led-gun-reform-chants-on-house-f/70078002007/.
Jones, Vivian and Melissa Brown. 2023. “Tennessee capitol protest explainer: Here’s what did and did not happen.” The Tennessean, April 4. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2023/04/04/tennessee-capitol-protest-heres-what-did-and-did-not-happen/70075823007/.
Loller, Travis, Zeke Miller and Kristin Hall. 2023. “Kamala Harris leads Tennessee rally, backs ousted lawmakers.” AP NEWS, April 8. https://apnews.com/article/kamala-harris-tennessee-gun-violence-lawmakers-expelled-0a5011694aa5cbf5917bac7f9e09551b.
Obama, Barack. 2023. “What happened in Tennessee is the latest example of a broader erosion of civility and democratic norms. silencing those who disagree with us is a sign of weakness, not strength, and it won’t lead to progress.” Twitter, April 7. https://twitter.com/BarackObama/status/1644163255189774337.
Ryan, Erika, Patrick Jarenwattananon and Mary Louise Kelly. 2023. “Tennessee gop rep. Barrett on why he voted to expel two colleagues but not the third.” NPR, April 7. https://www.npr.org/2023/04/07/1168728769/tennessee-gop-rep-barrett-on-why-he-voted-to-expel-two-colleagues-but-not-the-th.
Yousif, Nadine, Brandon Drenon and Melisa Goh. 2023. “Lawmakers expelled: What to know about the ‘Tennessee three’.” BBC News, April 7. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-65182502.
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