2nd expelled Tennessee Democrat returned to state legislature

Memphis legislator Justin Pearson was restored to his seat six days after Republicans booted him over a gun legislation protest.

Justin Pearson.
Expelled Rep. Justin Pearson on April 7, the day after Pearson and another member of the Tennessee State Legislature were expelled. (George Walker IV/AP)
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The second Tennessee Democrat to be expelled from the state legislature last week after joining protesters in support of new gun safety laws was reinstated to his seat Wednesday.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to appoint Justin Pearson to fill the seat he lost last Thursday after a supermajority of Republicans voted to boot him from office. The Memphis legislator, who was elected earlier this year, had joined with two colleagues and hundreds of students and parents calling for government action in the wake of the March 27 shooting at a Nashville elementary school that resulted in six deaths.

“The message for all the people in Nashville who decided to expel us: You can’t expel hope,” Pearson said following the vote. “You can’t expel justice. You can’t expel our voice. And you sure can’t expel our fight.”

Prior to the brief special meeting, Pearson marched with demonstrators who were supporting his reinstatement. Speaking in front of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis before the march, Pearson said, “This is the democracy that they’re scared of. This is the democracy that they’re worried about because this is the democracy that changes the status quo.”

Two Democrats missed the meeting, with local reports saying they were out of the country, and all four of the board’s Republican members skipped it. Addressing a crowd of Pearson supporters in the chamber, Chairman Mick Lowery suspended public comment until after the voting, saying, “What happens after this is a lot of paperwork that needs to be done, and we need to get that to Nashville as soon as possible,” which elicited cheers.

Commissioner Erika Sugarmon told FOX13 last week that the state’s Republican leaders had threatened to pull funding for projects in the city if they reappointed Pearson but added, “We've got to stand for something or fall for everything. And we've been bullied by the state for too long now."

Justin Pearson, Gloria Johnson and Justin Jones.

In a New York Times op-ed published Wednesday morning, Pearson wrote that, in the wake of the shooting, Republican legislators “averted their eyes and hurried into the chamber, walking through hundreds of mourning protesters to discuss a bill to further expand gun rights by allowing teachers to carry weapons on campus.”

“I wasn’t elected to be pushed to the back of the room and silenced,” Pearson continued. “We who were elected to represent all Tennesseans — Black, white, brown, immigrant, female, male, poor, young, transgender and queer — are routinely silenced when we try to speak on their behalf. Last week, the world was allowed to see it in broad daylight.”

Justin Jones, the other expelled legislator, was reinstated by the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County on Monday via unanimous vote. Both Jones and Pearson will also have to win special elections to retain their seats.

Jones was escorted back into the chamber on Monday by state Rep. Gloria Johnson. Johnson was considered for expulsion along with Jones and Pearson but fell one vote shy of being stripped of her office. Johnson, 60, is white, while both Pearson and Jones are Black men in their 20s with backgrounds in community organizing and the social justice movement. When asked about the reason behind her seat retention, Johnson told reporters it “might have to do with the color of our skin.”

Justin Jones.
Democratic Rep. Justin Jones after being expelled from the Tennessee Legislature on April 6. (Seth Herald/Getty Images)

“To the people of Tennessee, I stand with you,” Jones said upon returning to the House floor on Monday. “We will continue to be your voice here. And no expulsion, no attempt to silence us will stop us, but it will only galvanize and strengthen our movement. And we will continue to show up in the people’s house.”

The three legislators said they understood it was a breach of decorum to approach the podium with a bullhorn chanting, “No action, no peace!” but said they were echoing the sentiments of their constituents.

“There were thousands outside wanting us to stand up,” Johnson told Yahoo News last week. “I come from a community that [deals with gun violence regularly]. We want action so we don’t have this issue. This is indicative of the silencing.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton initially likened the trio’s actions to an “insurrection.” Asked last week about the possibility of Jones and Pearson returning, Sexton told Yahoo News, “We all understand we won’t agree on every issue or every vote, but we will continue to work together on issues where we have common ground. A majority of our legislation has always been bipartisan, and I do not expect that to change.”

Upon returning to his seat, Jones called for Sexton to resign, calling him an “enemy to democracy.”

Cameron Sexton and William Lamberth.
Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, speaks with Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, in the House chamber on April 10. (George Walker IV/AP)

In a letter Monday, attorneys for Jones and Pearson warned Sexton about attempts at retribution against the two lawmakers.

“The world is watching Tennessee," the letter read. "Any partisan retributive action, such as the discriminatory treatment of elected officials, or threats or actions to withhold funding for government programs, would constitute further unconstitutional action that would require redress.”

The protests appear to have inspired some action on the gun issue by a GOP-controlled state government that was recently focused on passing restrictions on drag performances and gender-affirming care for transgender minors. Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who has previously downplayed the need for new gun safety legislation while making it legal for adults in Tennessee to carry a handgun without a permit, signed an executive order Tuesday in an attempt to strengthen background checks. He also called on the legislature to pass legislation that would help keep guns away from people who are a threat to themselves or others.

"I’m asking the general assembly to bring forward an order of protection law," Lee said. "A new, strong order of protection law will provide the broader population cover — safety — from those who are a danger to themselves or the population."

Protesters rally.
Protesters rally outside of the Tennessee State Capital building in support of Jones. (Seth Herald/Getty Images)

The national focus on the “Tennessee Three” included a phone call from President Biden, a quickly arranged visit from Vice President Kamala Harris and a flood of donations, with the Congressional Black Caucus saying the move was “not only racist and anti-democratic, it is morally bankrupt and out of step with the overwhelming majority of Americans who believe that we need common sense gun control reforms to save lives.” The extreme reaction to a violation of parliamentary rules amid a series of mass shootings highlighted the Republican party’s struggles with young voters in a week when they also lost a high-profile race in Wisconsin.

“To anyone who has doubted the South, anyone who’s doubted the power of Tennesseans to advocate for an end to gun violence, anybody who’s doubted the movement to end assault weapons — anybody who’s doubted the movement, here’s your answer: The movement still lives,” Pearson said Monday on the steps of the Capitol, standing next to Jones.