NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — In an extraordinary act of political retaliation, Republicans on Thursday expelled a Democratic lawmaker from the Tennessee Capitol for his role in a protest that called for more gun control in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting in Nashville.
Two more Democrats were at risk of being ousted by the Legislature’s GOP supermajority.
The 72-25 vote to banish Rep. Justin Jones was an extraordinary move the chamber has used only a handful times since the Civil War. Most state legislatures possess the power to expel members, but it is normally reserved as a punishment for lawmakers accused of serious misconduct, not as a weapon against political opponents.
The House was also considering removing Reps. Gloria Johnson and Justin Pearson a week after the trio chanted back and forth from the chamber floor with gun-control supporters who packed the gallery. The protest happened days after six people, including three children, were fatally shot at The Covenant School in Nashville.
“We are losing our democracy. This is not normal. This is not OK,” Pearson told reporters. The three “broke a House rule because we’re fighting for kids who are dying from gun violence and people in our communities who want to see an end to the proliferation of weaponry in our communities. And that leads to our expulsion? This is not democracy.”
Thousands of people flocked to the Capitol to support the Democrats, cheering and chanting outside the House chamber so loudly that the noise drowned out the proceedings. The trio held hands as they walked onto the House floor Thursday morning, and Pearson raised his fist to the crowd during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Offered a chance to defend himself before the vote, Jones said the GOP responded to the shooting with a different kind of attack. “We called for you all to ban assault weapons, and you respond with an assault on democracy,” he said.
If expelled, Jones vowed that he would continue pressing for action on guns. “I’ll be out there with the people every week, demanding that you act,” he said.
The calls for expulsion, which requires a two-thirds majority, stem from the attack at the Covenant School. Johnson, Jones and Pearson chanted back and forth from the chamber floor with gun-control supporters who packed the gallery.
Republican Rep. Gino Bulso said the three Democratic representatives “effectively conducted a mutiny.”
“The gentleman shows no remorse,” Bulso said, referring to Jones. “He does not even recognize that what he did was wrong. So not to expel him would simply invite him and his colleagues to engage in mutiny on the House floor.”
Even if they are expelled, the three lawmakers may not be gone for long. County commissions in their districts get to pick replacements to serve until a special election can be scheduled. Any expelled lawmakers would be eligible for appointment back to their seats. They would also be eligible to run in the special election. And under the Tennessee Constitution, lawmakers cannot be expelled for the same offense twice.
Republican Rep. Sabi Kumar advised Jones to be more collegial and less focused on race. “You have a lot to offer, but offer it in a vein where people are accepting of your ideas,” Kumar said.
Jones said he did not intend to assimilate in order to be accepted. “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to make a change for my community,” he replied.
Outrage over the possible expulsion underscored not only the ability of the Republican supermajority to silence opponents, but also its increasing willingness to do so. The move sends a chilling message just as lawmakers grapple with how to respond to the devastating shooting while others have raised concerns about undermining Democracy by overturning the will of the voters.
In Washington, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre described the vote as “legislative bullying.” “The fact that this vote is happening is shocking, undemocratic and without precedent,” she said.
Many of the protesters traveled from Memphis and Knoxville, areas that Pearson and Johnson represent, and stood in a line that wrapped around the Capitol building to get inside. Protesters outside the chamber held up signs that said, “School zones shouldn’t be war zones,” “Muskets didn’t fire 950 rounds per minute” with a photo of George Washington, and “You can silence a gun … but not the voice of the people.“
As the House began its proceedings, Democratic Rep. Vincent Dixie stood before his colleagues and urged them to “not get distracted.” He mentioned the funeral for Mike Hill, one of the Nashville school shooting victims, which took place earlier in the week. “I want us to keep in mind the sacrifice that he made to keep those kids safe,” Dixie said. “Each of us has power to make change.”
Before the expulsion vote, House members debated more than 20 bills, including a school safety proposal requiring public and private schools to submit their building safety plans to the state. The bill did not address gun control, sparking criticisms from some Democratic members that lawmakers were only addressing a symptom and not the cause of school shootings.
In 2019, lawmakers faced pressure to expel former Republican Rep. David Byrd after he faced accusations of sexual misconduct dating to when he was a high school basketball coach three decades earlier. Republicans declined to take any action, pointing out that he was reelected as the allegations surfaced. Byrd retired last year.
Last year, the state Senate expelled Democrat Katrina Robinson after she was convicted of using about $3,400 in federal grant money on wedding expenses instead of her nursing school.
Before that case, state lawmakers last ousted a House member in 2016 when the chamber voted 70-2 to remove Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham after an attorney general’s investigation detailed allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women during his four years in office.