In an extraordinary, emotionally charged session marked by tense exchanges and punctuated by boos and chants from onlookers, Tennessee’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to expel two Black lawmakers – but failed to oust a third representative – a week after the three Democrats led a gun reform protest in the chamber.
The crowd in the gallery erupted in boos and chants following both expulsions and loud cheers when the vote count turned up just short in the bid to oust Rep. Gloria Johnson. The session lasted seven hours.
The vote over rules violations for Rep. Justin Jones split along party lines 72-25, while the vote in Rep. Justin Pearson’s case was 69-26. Johnson’s vote was 65-30. Expulsion from the House requires a two-thirds majority of the total membership.
Protesters upset with inaction on gun violence reform after a deadly mass shooting at a Nashville school again flooded the state Capitol on Thursday as the session to vote on the expulsions – a step the state House has taken only twice since the 1860s – was to begin.
During the debate over his expulsion, Jones said: “We called for you all to ban assault weapons and you respond with an assault on democracy.”
After surviving her vote, Johnson, who is White, was asked why there was a difference in the outcome for her and Jones, who is Black-Filipino.”It might have to do with the color of our skin,” she said.
The three lawmakers led a protest on the House floor last Thursday without being recognized, CNN affiliate WSMV reported, and used a bullhorn as demonstrators at the Capitol called on lawmakers to take action after the shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville left three 9-year-olds and three adults dead. Each lawmaker was removed from their committee assignments following last week’s demonstrations.
Each of the resolutions said the lawmakers “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives,” saying they “began shouting without recognition” and “proceeded to disrupt the proceedings of the House Representatives” for just under an hour Thursday morning.
The resolutions removed the two lawmakers from office under Article II, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution, which says, in part, the House can set its own rules and “punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.”
President calls expulsion votes ‘undemocratic’
President Joe Biden criticized the proceedings in Nashville in a tweet.
“Three kids and three officials gunned down in yet another mass shooting. And what are GOP officials focused on? Punishing lawmakers who joined thousands of peaceful protesters calling for action. It’s shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent,” he wrote.
On Thursday, the debate began with Republicans playing footage of the protest last week, showing Jones, Johnson and Pearson standing in the well of the House and using the bullhorn to address their colleagues and protesters in the gallery.
Democrats were opposed to having the footage played, arguing it was unfair because they had not seen the video themselves and did not know the extent to which it had been edited.
After Jones was expelled, Democratic Whip Jason Powell, who represents Nashville, angrily said the House was spending too much time on the expulsion issue.
“I had to leave here Monday night after this resolution was introduced and go to my son’s Little League field and see red ribbons surrounding the outfield in memory of William Kinney who was murdered and I am outraged, and we should all be outraged,” he said, his voice rising. “We need to do something and expelling Justin Jones is not the answer. It is a threat to democracy.”
Pearson, who is Black, told CNN during the discussion over Johnson’s expulsion: “We are losing our democracy to White supremacy. We are losing our democracy to patriarchy. We are losing our democracy to people who want to keep a status quo that is damning to the rest of us and damning to our children and unborn people.”
Republicans control the Tennessee House by a wide margin, with 75 members to Democrats’ 22 – and two now-vacant seats.
Lawmakers will return to work Monday with the legislature’s schedule showing two committee meetings and the full House session beginning at 5 p.m. CT.
Jones says he will be back
Jones was defiant in his defense and again used his time in the well to call for action on firearms legislation.
“There comes a time where people get sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Jones said in a speech prior to a vote on his expulsion. “And so my colleagues, I say that what we did was act in our responsibility as legislators to serve and give voice to the grievances of people who have been silenced.”
Jones added: “How can you bring dishonor to an already dishonorable house?”
As he left the Capitol on Thursday, Jones said he is not sure what his next steps are following his expulsion.
“I will continue to show up to this Capitol with these young people whether I’m in that chamber or outside,” Jones told reporters.
After Jones was expelled, those inside the Capitol gallery raised their fists and booed. They again booed when Pearson was ousted, and as a vote to recess was taken, crowds gathered in the chambers could be heard chanting, “Shame on you.”
Cheers filled the Capitol following the failed vote to expel Johnson.
More about the three representatives:
Rep. Justin Jones:
Johnson thanked the crowd that was gathered around the building and encouraged them to vote. “Keep showing up, standing up and speaking out and we will be with you,” she added.
Following the session, Pearson told reporters he hopes to be re-appointed.
“I do hope to get re-appointed to serve in the state legislature by the Shelby County Commissioners, and a lot of them, I know, are upset about the anti-democratic behavior of this White supremacist-led state legislature,” he said.
It is possible Jones and Pearson could regain their seats as local governments can vote to fill the vacated positions through appointments then hold special elections.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper said in a tweet Thursday night that Jones and Pearson’s districts were “disenfranchised today.”
“I’m proud that Metro Council is meeting Monday to fill the vacancy left in Nashville by today’s vote, & I believe they’ll send (Jones) right back to continue serving his constituents,” the tweet read.
Expulsions are very rare
In the last 157 years, the House has expelled only two lawmakers, which requires a two-thirds vote: In 1980, after a representative was found guilty of accepting a bribe while in office, and in 2016, when another was expelled over allegations of sexual harassment.
Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton said peaceful protesters have always been welcomed to the capitol to have their voices heard on any issue, but that the actions of the Democratic lawmakers had detracted from that process.
“In effect, those actions took away the voices of the protestors, the focus on the six victims who lost their lives, and the families who lost their loved ones,” Sexton said in a series of tweets Monday.
“We cannot allow the actions of the three members to distract us from protecting our children. We will get through this together, and it will require talking about all solutions,” Sexton said.
During the discussion Thursday, Democratic Rep. Joe Towns called the move to expel the “nuclear option.”
“You never use a sledgehammer to kill a gnat,” Towns said. “We should not go to the extreme of expelling our members for fighting for what many of the citizens want to happen, whether you agree with it or not.”
To some, the vote to expel Johnson, Jones and Pearson was a distraction from the real issue: Keeping children safe.
“I want people to know this is not a political issue, it’s a child issue,” Deborah Castellano, a first-grade teacher in Nashville, told CNN. “If you wash away Democrat, Republican, it’s about kids and do we want them to be safe or not. I will stand in front of children and protect as many as I can with my body … but we shouldn’t have to, and those kids shouldn’t be afraid.”
CNN’s Ryan Young reported from Nashville while CNN’s Amy Simonson reported from Atlanta and Dakin Andone reported and wrote in New York. CNN’s Sam Fossum, Sara Smart and Raja Razek contributed to this report.