Tennessee state Republicans’ historic vote Thursday night to expel two Democratic representatives for participating in a gun violence protest following the deadly shooting at a Nashville elementary school last week sparked outrage among major Democrats, including President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama, who condemned the votes as a “sign of weakness”—though state Republicans defended the measure.
Obama slammed Tennessee’s House for expelling Democratic state representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, calling it “the latest example of a broader erosion of civility and democratic norms,” and saying in a tweet he believes the vote “won’t lead to progress.”
Biden called the votes “shocking, undemocratic and without precedent,” condemning Tennessee’s GOP-led House for choosing to “punish, silence and expel” representatives rather than “debating the merits of the issue,” he wrote in a statement Thursday night.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) argued Tennessee’s GOP cares “more about stopping CERTAIN Democrats from speaking than they do about stopping America’s kids from getting shot to death”—Jones and Pearson are both Black (a third Democrat, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, narrowly avoided expulsion Thursday night and later told reporters she believes the reason why “might have to do with the color of our skin”).
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrote: “Shame on the Tennessee lawmakers” who voted in favor of expelling Jones and Pearson, while House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) wrote in a statement: “Our democracy is under attack,” adding, “These right-wing extremists can never be trusted.”
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), whose congressional district includes the area in Memphis Pearson had represented, acknowledged in a statement that “certain rules of decorum are necessary,” but that he believes the vote to expel Jones and Pearson was a “provocative and disproportionate response,” and an “embarrassing stain on the important Democratic institution.”
Tennessee Republicans slammed the three Democrats during their expulsion votes Thursday, arguing their conduct was “improper” and “wrongful.” Speaking on the State House floor, GOP state Rep. Gino Bulso argued their attendance at a protest and use of political signs violated state procedural rules, while state Rep. Andrew Farmer (R) attacked them for throwing “a temper tantrum with an adolescent bullhorn.” House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) called their actions at the protest “unacceptable,” arguing their behavior was an effort to “make themselves the victims.” In a statement Thursday night, Tennessee House Republicans said the vote to expel Johnson and Jones was “the only path forward” because they participated in “disrespectful and deliberate efforts to disrupt the business of the House.”
The debate over expelling Johnson, Jones and Pearson (who survived expulsion by just one vote) stems from a protest against gun violence that the three Democratic representatives attended at the Tennessee State House last week following the deadly shooting at a Nashville elementary school that left six people dead. The three Democrats had stood together at the protest, demanding gun reform and holding signs, including one that read, “Protect Kids Not Guns.” State Republicans, meanwhile, have called for boosting school security and mental health access, and argued gun reform would not reduce gun violence. Tennessee’s House voted overwhelmingly Monday to bring the three Democrats’ expulsion up for a vote, with the chamber’s GOP majority claiming they “did knowingly and intentionally bring dishonor and disorder.” Specifically, GOP lawmakers claim they broke state procedural rules by attending a protest and holding signs with political messages, though the three Democrats argued in letters and on the House floor they were exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.
Tennessee’s House passed a Republican-sponsored bill Thursday to tighten school security measures, while Gov. Bill Lee (R) proposed additional actions aimed at school security, including more than $200 million for armed school resource officers, security upgrades and mental health resources. In a press conference Thursday, Lee pushed for armed security guards in every school in the state, saying “there is no excuse” to not have them.
What To Watch For
A special election to fill the two empty House seats, which both expelled representatives are eligible to run in to regain their seats. In the time before the election, local councils can also elect an interim representative. Jones said he would serve again, including as interim representative, if appointed by the Metropolitan Council of Davidson County, he told CNN’s Don Lemon Friday morning. The Nashville Council is expected to send him back to the House, The Tennessean reported, while Shelby County Commission Chairman Mickey Lowery said the commission is seeking a legal opinion to determine whether it can reappoint Pearson, who has said he hopes to return to the House, the Commercial Appeal reported.
“This nation was built on peaceful protest,” Obama tweeted, adding: “No elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice—especially when they’re doing it on behalf of our children.”
Tennessee House Expels 2 Democrats Over Gun Reform Protest (Forbes)
Nashville Mass Shooter Fired 152 Rounds In Minutes, Police Say (Forbes)
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