Featured Photo by Jorge Avila
Story by Jenene Grover
Tennessee’s House of Representatives voted to expel Democrat members Justin Jones and Justin Pearson on April 6. Both of their city councils voted to reinstate them less than a week later.
The original expulsion vote was unprecedented and made history in Tennessee, as the only previous expulsions have occurred due to representatives breaking the law.
Reps. Gloria Johnson, Jones and Pearson were protesting gun violence as a result of the March 27 Covenant School shooting. As each member broke a House rule by approaching the well without permission, all three faced expulsion, which needs a two-thirds majority to pass.
“The reason my colleagues felt the need to go the well and have their voices be heard without permission was because too often the question is called procedurally or we are not allowed to speak our voice,” said Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons.
Jones was expelled 72-25 along party lines with the exception of Republican Rep. Charlie Baum voting against his expulsion.
“It was sickening. It was not a legitimate debate. They started the whole process like it was going to be a legal proceeding with them issuing and sharing facts and why they think they should be expelled and that they were trying to build this case, and it just devolved into nonsense,” said Democrat Rep. Bob Freeman, representing District 56 where the Covenant School is located.
During the discussion, Republican Rep. Kelly Keisling called to end discussion and move to a vote on the legislation. The House Democrats’ reaction to this was outright anger; even commonly levelheaded Clemmons yelled at the legislature about their immaturity.
“The source of my real frustration was if you’re going to take this unjust and unconstitutional action, then you better be prepared to fully debate it because that’s the reason for their actions originally, and if witnessing injustice is so uncomfortable, then why are we doing it in the first place?” said Clemmons.
Johnson remained with a vote of 65-30, with seven Republican representatives voting no: Rep. Jody Barrett, Rep. Rush Bricken, Rep. Bryan Richey, Rep. Lowell Russell, Rep. Mike Sparks, Rep. Sam Whitson and Rep. Baum.
Russell said he took the evidence of each individual into consideration when voting, which he said is why he did not choose to expel Johnson.
Richey said he cared about the situation at hand rather than the prospect of how the vote would make him look while getting reelected.
“So many other legislators out there make decisions on, ‘Will this get me reelected or not, or will this be an issue?’ and I’m looking at everything on, ‘What do I feel is the right appropriate thing to do,’” said Richey.
Each Republican representative that voted against expelling any members has received intense backlash, with some even receiving death threats, however, both Richey and Russell said they felt they were doing the right thing and would not change their votes.
“CNN wanted to ask me questions, and I answered all the questions honestly. Then, I get 40 phone calls calling me a racist and a liar and ‘I hope you’re going to have dead babies in your dreams, dead babies smother your kids, and there’s a special place in Hell for you and Trump and Hitler,’” said Richey.
Pearson was expelled 69-26, with Republican Reps. Baum, Richey and Gillespie voting against the expulsion.
Richey said he did not wish to expel any of the members but still voted Jones out because prior to the meeting Jones hinted at wanting to be expelled.
“He came into my office, we spoke briefly Wednesday when he came in there, and he said, ‘Hey if I get expelled, this will all end up making national news’. . . and he was talking about how big of a name he was going to end up being and that Metro Council was going to reappoint him,” said Richey.
Many are still calling for gun legislation to be passed by the legislature, but the time of year is stopping members from doing so.
“The filing deadline was back on January 28 or 29 or something, it was the end of January. So even if we wanted to introduce some type of legislation right now, we wouldn’t be able to,” said Richey.
Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order regarding red flag processes, meaning that mental health and criminal background will be investigated prior to a citizen purchasing a gun.
“If we want to rely on this ‘good-guy-with-a-gun’ theory, we need to make sure only the good guys are getting guns,” said Freeman.
Tennessee’s political discussion about gun violence and safety and the State House expulsions has sparked polarized debate around the whole country.
“If all of the facts were actually out there for the public and not in a partisan way but in a truthful manner, then what’s dividing this country would not be dividing this country,” said Richey.
The expulsions were covered on national and international news, something that Jones called an embarrassment in his opening speech.
“Serving the legislature is both a great joy and sometimes brings a great sadness because I have a front-row seat for some of the most hateful actions that our state, in my time, has put forth,” said Freeman.
Jenene Grover is the politics and government reporter for MTSU Sidelines.
To contact News Editor Kailee Shores and Assistant News Editor Alyssa Williams, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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