FOR THE WEEK OF APR 17, 2023
Tennessee Legislature stays in spotlight after 2 expelled Democrats regain seats, vow to resume gun-reform push
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Tennessee draws national attention as a gun-safety push swelled into a wider confrontation between Republican legislators and several outspoken Democrats. Members of the state House majority party this month expelled two newcomers for loudly joining with protesters in the chamber's balcony to call for firearms reforms after a March 27 school shooting that killed three adults and three pupils in Nashville. The kicked-out lawmakers, Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis, regained their seats last week on an interim basis until special elections that they're virtually sure to win.
They were restored temporarily in two unanimous votes by local elected officials in their districts. "No expulsion, no attempt to silence us will stop us, but it will only galvanize and strengthen our movement," Jones said in his first formal remarks back in the House. And right after a county board of commissioners voted 7-0 in his favor, Pearson said: "We look forward to continuing to fight, continuing to advocate until justice rolls down like water," a phrase that echoes Martin Luther King Jr.
The two Democrats, who chanted "no action, no peace" through a megaphone in the House after their microphones were cut off, were voted out for breaking "several rules of decorum and procedure" by speaking without permission. They were the state's first legislators expelled for a procedural violation. House Speaker Cameron Sexton accused the pair and Rep. Gloria Johnson of "shouting at members to incite riots or violence." (She avoided expulsion by one vote.)
Their unseating lifted the two first-term representatives in their 20s to front-page prominence. "Instead of being muzzled, their voices were amplified," wrote New York Times columnist Charles Blow. Videos of their floor remarks went viral and made network newscasts. They had a video call with President Joe Biden. Vice President Kamala Harris visited them and spoke about their crusade at Fisk University in Nashville. "I think the Republicans are in a point of reflection here in Tennessee," Rep. Jones said after regaining his seat. "This is a new day, a new time in Tennessee."
The majority party's action generates outcries from beyond that state. “It's about basic American values,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial. Referring to the right to vote, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, he added: "It appears as though the Tennessee Legislature needs a refresher on the American Constitution." Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of a nonpartisan government watchdog group called Democracy 21, worries about the possibility of similar action in other Republican-led legislatures. "This stuff travels," he said.
Democrat says: "The [House] speaker's threats against democracy are being met with this resurrection of a movement for democracy happening here in Nashville, and I think it will have reverberations across the South." – Rep. Justin Jones
Republicans say: "Like everyone else, they are expected to follow the rules of the House as well as state law." – Reps. William Lamberth, majority leader, and Jeremy Faison, chairman of the House Republican caucus
Ex-president says: "What happened in Tennessee is the latest example of a broader erosion of civility and democratic norms. Silencing those who disagree with us is a sign of weakness, not strength, and it won’t lead to progress." – Barack Obama, in tweet hours after the expulsion