Two Tennessee Democrats who were expelled from the Republican-dominated state House of Representatives last week over their participation in a gun control protest said on Sunday that they hoped to soon reclaim their seats.
Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who joined hundreds of protesters at the state capitol in Nashville to demand stricter gun laws four days after a mass shooting at a local school, told NBC’s Meet the Press that they hoped to be reappointed by their districts to serve in their seats until they could run again in special elections.
Their expulsion has drawn national outcry from Democrats. Vice President Kamala Harris paid a visit to Nashville last Friday in support of Jones, who represents a Nashville district, Pearson, who represents a Memphis district, and their colleague Representative Gloria Johnson, who also joined the gun control protest but was spared expulsion last week by one member vote.
Under Tennessee Law, the Metropolitan Council of Davidson County in Nashville and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in Memphis can appoint interim representatives for their districts’ now-vacant seats until a special election is held.
Metro Council Member Kevin Rhoten said on Twitter that he had been bombarded with emails since Thursday asking him to vote to appoint Justin Jones for the District 52 seat, and that he planned to do that. At least two members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners have told local news they plan to reappoint Pearson to the District 86 seat.
“I would be honoured to accept the appointment of the Shelby County Commission and to run in a special election,” Pearson told NBC on Sunday.
Jones said he too would accept a reappointment and run again in a special election.
“Their attack on democracy hurts all of us,” Jones said of the Republican-controlled House.
The Metropolitan Council in Nashville planned to meet on Monday to address the district vacancy. Nashville Vice Mayor Jim Shulman told Reuters that if the council rules are suspended, a vote could be held right after that meeting, and Jones could return to his role.
Shelby County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mickell Lowery on Sunday announced the board would consider reappointing Pearson in a special meeting called for Wednesday.
On March 30, hundreds of demonstrators flooded into the Tennessee statehouse to demand that lawmakers pass stricter gun laws, after assailant Audrey Hale gunned down three 9-year-old students and three staff members at the Covenant School in Nashville on March 27. Videos posted to Twitter showed the two Black lawmakers, Representatives Jones and Pearson, shouting through a bullhorn on the House floor, saying “No action, no peace!”
Republicans accused them and Johnson of engaging in “disorderly behaviour” and said in resolutions calling for their expulsion that they “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonour to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions.” The Democrats said their participation in the protest was within their constitutional right to freedom of speech.
On Thursday, the body voted along party lines to expel Jones and Pearson.
Race came up several times during the debate ahead of the vote. Jones, who is Black, said Republican Representative Gino Bulso, who is white, portrayed him as an “uppity Negro.” Another Republican in the chamber, Sarbjeet Kumar, said Jones saw everything through the lens of race. As the vote was held, Black members and other Democrats joined Jones at the podium. Most Republican members are white.
Pearson and Jones have said their expulsion is the latest instance of the mostly white, mostly Republican state government trying to suppress the voices of communities of colour.
Both former lawmakers addressed their communities at Easter worship services on Sunday. Pearson, delivering the sermon at the Church on the River in Memphis, emphasized his and Jones’ innocence and vowed to continue speaking out against the Republican-led chamber.
“The Republican-led supermajority of the Tennessee General Assembly sought to have a political lynching of three of its members because we spoke out of turn against the status quo of the government after the tragic deaths of six people,” Pearson told the congregation.
He spoke exuberantly, rousing the crowd to their feet and eliciting cries of agreement from the congregation.
Jones attended Easter service at Watson Grove Church in Nashville and briefly spoke to the congregation, delivering a message of resilience.
“It’s not over,” Jones said. “We are in the midst of a resurrection … that will redeem the soul of the state and hopefully this nation.”
Only two other Tennessee state representatives have been expelled by their colleagues since the Civil War era: one in 1980 for soliciting a bribe in exchange for blocking legislation and another in 2016 after being accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women. Both expulsions were made with overwhelming, bipartisan votes.