After several hours of debate, two Tennessee Democrats were expelled from the Tennessee General Assembly by the Republican supermajority-controlled House of Representatives on Thursday.
The third state representative facing expulsion held her seat by a margin of only one vote on a historic day in the Tennessee legislature. The close vote came as a shock, as eight Republican lawmakers broke ranks to vote against the expulsion of Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knox County.
Resolutions to expel the members were introduced on April 3 after the lawmakers led protesters with a bullhorn in chants calling for tighter restrictions on gun rights while on the House floor. This came after the deadly Covenant School shooting in Nashville the week before.
A Historic Day Unfolds
The first representative to lose his seat was Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville. Later in the evening, Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis lost his seat in the body. Both removal votes were along party lines, with all of the chamber’s Democrat members voting against expulsion.
The third Democrat who faced expulsion retained her seat with 65 of the necessary 66 votes to expel her.
Hundreds of protestors spent upwards of ten hours on the Capitol grounds in Nashville and just outside the House chamber—the rowdy crowd could be heard chanting throughout the day.
The loudest roar from the crowd came at the end of the evening, just before 7:00 p.m. local time, following the expulsion of Pearson, who gave a fiery final speech promising to “not quit.”
Both expelled members can be reappointed to their seats by officials in their respective counties, which in Nashville and Memphis are Democrat strongholds in an otherwise red state. They cannot be expelled again for the same offenses, members said during debate Thursday.
The debate before the vote to expel Jones lasted many hours as each of the three representatives faced separate hearings on April 6. Representatives from each side of the aisle spoke passionately, shouted, yelled, and expressed emotion about the historic move to remove the members.
Jones, in his closing remarks, urged his colleagues to vote against his expulsion by telling them “the world is watching.”
“When I walked up to this well on last Thursday, I was thinking about the thousands of students who were outside demanding that we do something. In fact, many of their signs said ‘do something,’” Jones said in his closing plea. “That was their only ask of us is to respond to their grief, to respond to a traumatized community. But in response to that, the first action of this body is to expel members for calling for common sense gun legislation.”
Jones went on to claim that his Republican colleagues were committing an “assault on democracy” and that this day will “be a dark day for Tennessee because it will signal to the nation that there is no democracy in Tennessee.”
Pearson gave an intense speech surrounded by his Democratic colleagues, speaking of a spirit of not giving up.
“My people have yet to quit,” he said. “They were witnesses, as you have been witnesses, to what has been happening in the anti-democratic state of Tennessee.”
He added that while it may seem like “the NRA and gun lobbyists might win,” he had good news—that “Sunday always comes; resurrection is a promise, and it is a prophecy that came out of the cotton fields, the lynching tree, and still lives in each and every one of us in order to make the state of Tennessee the place that it ought to be.”
“I’ve still got hope because I know we are still here, and we will never quit,” he said to raucous applause from the gallery.
He was also removed in a party-line vote and officially declared expelled from the chamber by House Speaker Cameron Sexton.
Seven Republicans crossed party lines to vote against the expulsion of Johnson, who has been a member representing Knox County in East Tennessee since 2018.
“Our hearts compelled us to come [to the well] to call for action,” Johnson said in her closing remarks before the vote. “We need to let the voices of [my 70,000 constituents] be heard.”
The two seats left by Jones and Pearson are now vacant and will need to be filled, likely by themselves, as officials in Memphis and Nashville have already voiced support for reappointing them to the temporarily-vacant seats.