From left, Tennessee state Reps. Justin Pearson, Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson hold their hands up as they exit the House Chamber doors at the Tennessee state Capitol Building in Nashville, Monday, April 3, 2023. | Nicole Hester/The Tennessean via AP Nicole Hester/The Tennessean via AP
On Thursday, the Republican supermajority in the Tennessee state House voted to remove two young Democratic lawmakers from their office and narrowly avoided expelling a third one from her office. The move marks an unprecedented escalation in the brazen power play by MAGA-era Republicans, and was triggered by a peaceful protest against gun violence on the House floor last week.
The expulsion of a state Representative or lawmaker is a fairly rare event in the U.S. political landscape. The Tennessee state House has expelled a total of eight of its members in history, only two of them since the end of the Civil War. Most recently, one legislator was removed in 2016 for sexual misconduct. The state Senate also removed one of its own members, a woman of color by the name of Katrina Robinson, last year after federal wire fraud charges against her became public.
After the latest shooting that killed three students and three staff members in a private Christian school in Nashville on March 27, protests broke out across the state against lax gun laws allowing for such tragedy to take place. Three Democratic Representatives: Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, Justin Jones of Nashville, and Justin Pearson of Memphis, led a particularly notable instance of such a protest on the House floor last week. This created a tense environment with the Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton calling the action ‘unacceptable’ in a Tweet on Monday.
On the same day, three Republican Representatives Bud Hulsey, Gino Bulso and Andrew Farmer filed individual resolutions to request removal of ‘the Tennessee Three’: Johnson, Jones, and Pearson. Jones and Pearson, who are Black, were successfully expelled from the body on Thursday, while Johnson survived with just one vote. Some analysts suggest that the vote against Johnson failed because she did not use a megaphone during last week’s demonstration. However, Johnson herself put the blame squarely at ‘racism’ against her colleagues of color.
While not inconceivable, the expulsion of two minority Representatives for peaceful protest and non-criminal conduct does represent an unprecedented escalation in blatant abuse of political power. ACLU-Tennessee’s Kathy Sinback pushed back on the move, noting that it ‘undermines democracy’ and that the lawmakers should be free to express their ‘ethical convictions about crucial social issues’.
Right before the expulsion request was approved by the Republican majority in the House, Representative Johnson said in an interview Tuesday: “This is chipping away at our democracy, there’s no question, because everybody’s going to wonder, ‘am I next?’”
Former President Barack Obama also argued: “This nation was built on peaceful protest. No elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice – especially when they’re doing it on behalf of our children.”
In a Twitter statement Friday, President Joe Biden called the move “Shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent”. Adding context, Biden observed: “Three kids and three officials gunned down in yet another mass shooting. And what are GOP officials focused on? Punishing lawmakers who joined thousands of peaceful protesters calling for action.”
Vice President Kamala Harris flew to Nashville, Tennessee, on the same day to show solidarity with the expelled Representatives. She told a gathering at Fisk University, a Historically Black Institute of higher learning based in the city: “The issue, which gets back to these three, is that we need leaders who have the courage to act at state houses and in Washington, D.C., in the United States Congress … Have the courage to act instead of the cowardice to not allow debate.”