All but five members of the General Assembly’s 20-seat Democratic minority signed a letter circulated nationally by the State Innovation Exchange, a liberal legislation advocacy organization, pledging their “solidarity with Tennessee state representatives, Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson, as they face the threat of expulsion for simply standing with the people they are elected to serve.”
The letter also said “there is nothing ‘disorderly’ about courageously standing in solidarity with the people we are elected to serve, in opposition to the gun lobby that continues to profiteer off of an epidemic they have fueled. The Tennessee State Capitol is the people’s house, and Representatives Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson exemplified leadership on the House floor this week by standing up for what’s right. Any attempts to silence these elected leaders for exercising their constitutional right to protest are anti-democratic.”
Aull said it’s possible that even more Kentucky House Democrats might have added their names to the letter, “but we had a very short timeline to sign. Even so, 15 out of 20 was one of the higher percentages in the country.”
Nationwide, more than 200 state lawmakers signed the letter.
Dubbed the “Tennessee Three,” Democrats Jones, Pearson, and Johnson joined peaceful protestors at the Capitol in Nashville who were demanding gun reform legislation following the mass shooting at a city Christian school in which a heavily armed attacker killed three children and three staff members before being shot dead by police.
After Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton tried to prevent them from speaking, they made themselves heard on the House floor. Johnson and Pearson used a bullhorn.
The Republicans, who command a supermajority in the lower chamber (and the Senate), charged all three with violating decorum rules. They expelled Jones and Pearson, who are Black. Johnson, who is white, barely survived ouster.
Jones is from Nashville; Pearson, from Memphis; and Johnson, from Knoxville. On Monday, the Nashville Metro Council voted unanimously to return Jones to the House on an interim basis until a special election can be held. The freshman lawmaker said he intends to run again.
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners (Memphis is the Shelby County seat) voted to put Pearson back in today (Wednesday). He, too, will be subject to a special election.
Typically, state lawmakers are expelled for committing crimes such as bribery, not for violating chamber rules.
Sexton denied that the expulsions were based on race. “Two of the members, Representative Jones and Representative Johnson, have been very vocal about January 6 in Washington D.C., about what that was, and what they did today was equivalent, at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it, of doing an insurrection in the capitol,” Esquire columnist Charles P. Pierce quoted him.
The Kentucky Black Legislative Caucus joined the National Black Caucus of State Legislators in denouncing the expulsions. “NBCSL is appalled to hear the Speaker of the House characterize the actions of these legislators as acts of ‘insurrection,’” said a statement from the group. “This drastic partisan move to expel two of its members in light of their participation in a peaceful protest to amplify the need for effective gun control laws, is un-American and a direct attack on our democracy including one of its core elements: our first amendment rights.”
Pierce also took aim at Sexton: “‘Maybe worse depending on how you look at it?’ Yes, if you’re looking at it after eating a handful of mushrooms and chasing them with Tennessee moonshine. This was so unimaginably stupid that it was hard to imagine anything ever topping it. However, that was before … the actual expulsion votes were taken, and the face of pure white privilege shone through more clearly than it has since the last time George Wallace found his way to a microphone.”
Aull didn’t pull punches either: “The majority silenced the voices of the people whom those two legislators represent,” said Aull. “Those of us who are elected officials are supposed to raise our voices to represent our constituents. That’s what these members did.”
Tennessee is among several Republican Red States, including Kentucky, with hard-right MAGA GOP-dominated legislatures. But it’s unclear if any others plan to follow the Volunteer State House in deposing Democrats.
Aull doubts Kentucky’s current legislative leadership will sack any members of his party. “We have pretty profound differences of opinion with the Republicans when it comes to significant policies. But as it stands right now, I would be shocked if anything of that nature happened in Kentucky. Of course, leadership can change.”
He also said procedural rules adopted by state legislatures lack the force of law. But, they can be changed or suspended at the majority’s pleasure. “For example, we have House rules in Kentucky that say any floor amendment has to be filed 24 hours in advance of a vote on a bill. But the House voted numerous times during this last session to suspend the rules to consider floor amendments that were filed literally hours, if not minutes, prior to the vote on that legislation.”
He said just because Jones, Pearson, and Johnson were charged with breaking House rules “does not mean they did anything illegal. It does not mean they did anything wrong. They just used their voice to represent their constituency.”
Aull said the Tennessee House could have punished the trio in other ways, including censuring them or stripping them of their committee assignments.
“Expelling members for protesting and for espousing the views of their constituents is an attack on the foundations of our democracy,” according to Aull.
But he said that while Kentucky House Republican leaders might not sack any members of his party, they often hold up Tennessee as a model Kentucky should emulate.
In other words, they mean Kentucky should become even more conservative.
Tennessee is among the most conservative states. Few states tax and regulate business more lightly than Tennessee, which also has a Republican governor. Tennessee’s social welfare safety net is one of the most threadbare in the country.
Unions consider Tennessee one of the least labor-friendly states. It became a “right to work state” in 1947 when its state government was controlled by conservative white supremacist Democrats who feared unions, in which everybody is supposed to be equal, as a threat to the state’s Jim Crow system of racial segregation and black disenfranchisement.
Last year the GOP pushed a constitutional amendment to passage at the polls that enshrined RTW in the state charter.
“The Republicans say Kentucky should be more like Tennessee,” said Aull, who grew up in a union household and belongs to the United Campus Workers of Kentucky. “I don't want us to be more like Tennessee. I want to highlight the best in Kentucky.”