Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raises his fists on the floor of the House chamber to recognize his supporters before the start of the legislative session Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee Republicans are seeking to oust Pearson, and two other House Democrats for using a bullhorn to shout support for pro-gun control protesters in the House chamber. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
By KIMBERLEE KRUESI and JONATHAN MATTISE
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Thousands flocked to the Tennessee Capitol on Thursday to support the three Democratic lawmakers facing possible expulsion for their role in a gun control demonstration, cheering and chanting outside the House chamber so loud that it drowned out proceedings.
The GOP-dominated House is set to vote on whether to oust Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, an extraordinary move that the chamber has used only a handful of times since the Civil War.
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.
The calls for expulsion stem from a protest held last week, just days after six people, including three children, were fatally shot at The Covenant School in Nashville. Johnson, Jones and Pearson — now dubbed the “Tennessee three” — chanted back and forth from the chamber floor with gun control supporters who packed the gallery.
Outrage over the possible expulsion has once again thrust Tennessee into the national spotlight, underscoring 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.
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 on Thursday, 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 were set to debate 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.
Expulsions in the Tennessee General Assembly are extremely rare and considered an extraordinary action.
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-to-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.
If Johnson, Jones or Pearson are expelled, the county commissions in their districts would get to pick replacements to serve until a special election in several months. The three would remain eligible to run in those.