The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kamala Harris, Democrats rally around expelled Tenn. lawmakers

National Democrats hope for a political youth vote ‘earthquake’ while GOP stays largely silent

Former state Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville), state Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) and former state Rep. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) raise their hands outside the Tennessee House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature. (George Walker IV/AP)
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Vice President Harris led a chorus of Democratic outrage raining down on Tennessee Republicans on Friday, making a surprise visit to greet the state Democratic lawmakers who were kicked out of their posts by their GOP colleagues on Thursday for protesting in the statehouse for gun control laws.

The move to expel state Tennessee Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two Black men in their 20s, for joining crowds of gun control protesters following a mass killing in a Nashville primary school has sparked a debate over the Republican Party’s response to dissent as well as charges of racism that Democrats believe could damage the GOP further among young and diverse voters.

“That is not a democracy,” Harris said of the move to expel the lawmakers in a speech to Fisk University students after she met with Jones and Pearson. “You can’t walk around with your lapel pin and you’re not representing the values that we hold here as Americans.”

It’s a debate national Republicans appear to want no part in, however, as they largely stayed silent while Democrats ranging from former president Barack Obama to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) loudly condemned the votes.

The Republican-led Tennessee House voted April 6 to expel Reps. Justin Jones (D) and Justin Pearson (D) after they joined a gun-control protest last week. (Video: Hadley Green, Jackson Barton, Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

“This nation was built on peaceful protest,” Obama said in a statement. “No elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice—especially when they’re doing it on behalf of our children.”

Ocasio-Cortez said Republicans are “radicalizing and awakening an earthquake of young people” who would demand change and vote them out.

After Jones’s expulsion, President Biden tweeted that “punishing lawmakers who joined thousands of peaceful protesters calling for action” is “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.” On Friday, he thanked the lawmakers on a call and invited them to the White House.

A White lawmaker who also joined the protest was not expelled, adding to the outrage over the move.

Republicans representing Tennessee in Congress did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post. But GOP state lawmakers justified the vote on Thursday as a response to Jones and Pearson breaking the chamber’s rules by leading “disrespectful and deliberate efforts to disrupt the business of the House.”

Erick Erickson, a Georgia-based conservative talk radio host, called the move to expel the lawmakers unwise — although he said he understood why they had taken the drastic step, given the disruption in the chamber.

“They have now made two people the world had not heard of into martyrs for a cause,” Erickson warned on Twitter. “They’ll become the face of a movement.”

The vote also put the spotlight on the state’s White Republican lawmakers’ treatment of their Black colleagues and issues of race in general at a time when the GOP nationally has said they want to attract more voters of color into their coalition.

With the expulsion of Pearson and Jones — who represent parts of Memphis and Nashville, respectively — two of Tennessee’s most diverse cities are stripped of representation temporarily. Elected officials in those cities will have to select replacements to serve until the next election in August 2024. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who is the only Democrat representing the red state in Congress, called the vote “an embarrassing stain” on the body.

In her speech at the historically Black college, Harris said the GOP lawmakers showed “cowardice,” and appeared to act as if they didn’t want “those voices in the room, challenging notions about who can say what, when and where.”

“The broader implications of what happened in Tennessee are profoundly important and I think that they will strike a nerve with Americans across the country,” said Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the first Black person to hold that role.

Steele noted that Republicans risk looking like they lack compassion for kicking out lawmakers who were protesting with constituents who are genuinely concerned about gun violence following the March primary school shooting that left three children and three adults dead in Nashville.

And the fact that state Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, who is White, narrowly survived her expulsion vote, while her two Black co-protesters did not, underscored the unfairness of the moment for many.

“What was even more disturbing, but not lost on African Americans, was the two young Black legislators were removed and the 60-year-old White legislator was not,” Steele said. “And the excuses for not removing her were just a flat-out joke. So I think there’s a lot here for the country to unpack.”

Republicans said they did not expel Johnson because she did not use a bullhorn.

At times, the discourse on the floor as lawmakers debated the vote veered into the personal, giving the proceedings a sheen of disrespect.

“That yearning to have attention — that’s what you wanted, you’re getting it now,” said GOP Tennessee Rep. Andrew Farmer to Pearson as the legislature moved to kick him out. Farmer also referred to the gun control protest as a “temper tantrum.”

“Now, you all heard that,” Pearson said afterward. “How many of you would want to be spoken to that way?”

Jones, the other expelled lawmaker, said he believed the nation is now seeing how “racist” the lawmakers are.

“They thought by expelling us they would silence us, they would silence the movements we’re a part of, but in fact they’ve amplified it,” he said in an interview with Democracy Now. “They tried to kick us out but instead they put a spotlight on themselves.”

While the broader political implications of the controversy are still unclear, Democrats said they believe Republicans aligning themselves against action on gun reforms and for punishing young Black lawmakers could push away younger and more diverse voters, narrowing their coalition.

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter grass roots political group that organizes voters in Tennessee and other states, said the Republican Party risks becoming irrelevant if they alienate the nation’s growing bloc of voters of color.

“The Democrats should build off this but the truth of the matter is the majority of Americans are increasingly not White, so I don’t know how long Republicans think they’re going to use this antiquated backwards racist dog whistle,” Brown said. “It has a time stamp.”

Democrats flipped the red state of Georgia in 2020 in part by mobilizing Black voters and White suburban voters who were turned off by then-President Donald Trump’s incendiary language and positions on race.

“It’s unprincipled but it’s also unwise because I think it’s going to backfire on them,” said Justin Giboney, a Democratic strategist and president of the AND Campaign, a Christian civic group based in Atlanta. “I think what they’ve done is they’ve given these young men a national platform and, really, a golden microphone that I’m prayerful will be used well to talk about representation and about what’s gone wrong in that state.”

The Congressional Black Caucus assembled more than 100 state and federal Black lawmakers in an emergency Zoom meeting to offer support to their ousted colleagues on Thursday night.

“This is a direct assault on our democracy, on people’s duly elected representatives, and it smacks of overt racism that the two individuals that were ultimately expelled are two Black men who were simply speaking on behalf of their constituents,” said Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), who heads the CBC.

The move to strip dissenting lawmakers of their jobs also has implications for democracy itself in a state that is still dealing with its own legacy of slavery and subsequent Jim Crow laws mandating state-sponsored segregation.

The state’s Republicans, who have a supermajority in the House legislature, declined to censure or use other tools to reprimand the lawmakers short of the drastic step of expulsion.

“When they come and act so foolish on the House floor — this is a sacred place that belongs to everybody — and literally start looking up into the gallery with a bullhorn getting the protesters worked up in a frenzy, that is incumbent on us to say you’ve gone a step too far,” Jeremy Faison, the chair of the state’s House Republican caucus, said on CNN.

Ben Raderstorf, a policy advocate at Protect Democracy, a group that works to counter democratic decline in the United States, said the move to expel the lawmakers was a worrisome example of a rule designed as a shield against abuses of power being reforged and used instead as a weapon to go after political enemies. Instead of using the expulsion to get rid of a member who was accepting bribes, for example, it was used to silence the opposition.

“It’s an expression of power and an intimidation tactic,” he said. “It’s also a way to sideline vulnerable and minority communities. So while it is outrageous that the legislature chose to expel only the two Black members, it is sadly no surprise in light of the modern authoritarian playbook.”

María Luisa Paúl contributed to this report.

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