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NASHVILLE, Tennessee — State Rep. Gloria Johnson avoided expulsion on Thursday but two of her fellow Democrats did not, as members of the state House voted on measures to remove them from the legislative body.
Johnson and state Reps. Justin J. Pearson of Memphis and Justin Jones of Nashville last week called for the legislature to act to address gun violence, doing so in the chamber in a way that Republicans said was against the rules. Members voted to expel Jones and Pearson, who are both Black; Johnson is White.
Johnson was a teacher at Central High School in Knoxville in 2008 when one 15-year-old student fatally shot another. That’s what was on her mind last week when she spoke out with Jones and Pearson.
“As a teacher, seeing those faces of terror on those kids, and the tears as they come running into your classroom … you’ll never forget that. That’s about the time that we started hearing the sirens,” Johnson told The 19th on Wednesday.
“Now, any time I’m in a classroom or in a school and I hear sirens, it’s just instant terror.”
The lawmakers acknowledge that they did not follow decorum but maintain that they did nothing wrong when they demanded the House act, citing the First Amendment and their right to protest. Democrats passionately criticized the expulsion resolutions, saying they subverted the will of the voters.
Republicans hold a supermajority in the House, exceeding the two-thirds required to pass the expulsion resolutions. The three legislators who were up for expulsion aren’t just in the minority politically: Johnson is one of just 11 women in the House, and Pearson and Jones were two of just 15 Black representatives in the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators.
The Capitol has filled with protesters demanding restrictions on guns multiple times since the March 27 shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, in which a former student fired 152 rounds, killing three 9-year-old children and three adults. Many gathered again Thursday in anticipation of the expulsion votes, standing in the rain outside the Capitol.
Ahead of the votes, House lawmakers debated multiple bills around school safety and mental health, though none explicitly mention gun restriction measures. The three members facing expulsion questioned the legitimacy of those bills, and said they would not address the causes of mass shootings. Jones called them PR moves.
Johnson on Thursday objected to a measure that would put armed guards at schools, saying, “We don’t want gun battles at our schoolhouse door.” She has repeatedly introduced red flag bills, which would allow intervention when an individual owning a gun poses a threat to themself or others. According to Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake, the shooter’s parents stated that they believed their child should not have had a gun.
The leaders of the Tennessee legislature have steadfastly declined to do anything to make guns less accessible.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to defer action on any gun-related legislation until 2024, with its chair saying he would not allow the body to become a circus for people with “other agendas.” A day earlier, Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, introduced a $205 million school safety program that would include armed security guards but made no direct reference to gun restrictions. Lawmakers advanced a bill in the House Wednesday to allow teachers to carry guns, though it would still have to clear the Senate.
Thomas Goodman, a political science professor at Rhodes College, called the actions of the Republican supermajority a type of disenfranchisement for many people in the state. Together, the three represent more than 200,000 constituents in the state’s largest cities.
“They’re not directly being denied the right to vote, but their representation is being disenfranchised. They’re not getting their views and interests recognized,” Goodman said.
Filling the seat goes to elected county officials; they can reappoint the lawmaker who was expelled. Those lawmakers can also run again after the current session.
Ahead of the expulsion vote, Johnson told The 19th that there is a double standard in the legislative body, allowing her Republican colleagues to stay in office for what she says are worse offenses.
“We’ve had admitted child molesters on the floor. We have had members that peed in each other’s office chairs. We’ve had someone who has illegally prescribed drugs to their cousin-mistress. And nothing ever happened to those folks,” she said in a news conference.
“We broke the rules by speaking without permission,” she told The 19th.
Goodman said that while the actions of the Democratic representatives were out of line, the Republican expulsion effort escalated the conflict to a higher level.
“I think it does give it the appearance of a partisan effort to silence political opponents whether they intended that or not,” Goodman said.
Ahead of the vote, the state House Democratic Caucus and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators both released statements in support of the representatives and opposing their expulsion.
Kathy Sinback, the ACLU-TN executive director, condemned the move to expel the representatives.
“Trying to expel three lawmakers without due process for amplifying the voices of their constituents in a peaceful, non-violent manner undermines democracy. Expulsion is an extreme measure that is used very infrequently in our state and our country because it strips voters of representation by the people they elected,” she said in a statement.
An expulsion of this scale has not happened in the state since the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era. In 1866, six Tennessee representatives were held in contempt and expelled after they tried to prevent the ratification of the 14th Amendment, which provided citizenship to the formerly enslaved. Since then, only two representatives and one senator have been expelled from the body. Each of the three recent expulsions were bipartisan and related to criminal offenses.
Johnson, Pearson and Jones are lawmakers who do not represent the status quo of the Tennessee General Assembly, which is largely made up of White men. Women make up 14.4 percent of its state legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, meaning it’s tied with Mississippi for 48th in women’s legislative representation. Johnson is one of just two Democratic women in the House. Jones and Pearson, both Black men, are among the youngest lawmakers in the body, at 27 and 28 years old.
“I think that a lot of our body fears that,” Johnson said. “They fear smart young minds that can really pinpoint the heart of an issue and are so good at it.”