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After expulsions, Tennessee Democrats are relishing new momentum, while Republicans retreat

Rep. Justin J. Pearson raises the Oath of Office in the air after being sworn in.
Blaise Gainey
Rep. Justin J. Pearson raises the Oath of Office in the air after being sworn in.

The world now knows them as the Tennessee Three. But just a few weeks ago, not many people outside of the state knew of Democratic Reps. Justin Jones, Justin J. Pearson and Gloria Johnson. The Republican supermajority’s decision to expel the group over a gun control protest they held that broke House rules elevated them to political superstardom.

The episode also revealed Tennessee’s political dysfunction and, to many observers, an unraveling of democratic values.

A week ago, House Republicans thought they had the upper hand on Democrats, expelling two of their 24 members. And not just any two, Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin J. Pearson of Memphis are the youngest Black members of the Tennessee General Assembly.

But a week later, Shelby County Commissioners and Nashville’s Metro Council sent the two expelled lawmakers right back to their seats.

While Republicans believed they were sending a firm message about rules and decorum, it backfired — with Johnson, Jones and Pearson propelled into political superstardom.

In addition to appearances on Good Morning America, the attention has also been good for their campaign bank accounts, bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well a visit from Vice President Kamala Harris at Fisk University.

“Let’s not fall for the false choice, which suggests you’re either in favor of the Second Amendment or you want reasonable gun safety laws. We can and should do both,” Harris said.

Harris touched on the need for stricter gun laws after the Covenant School shooting that left six dead.

And it’s reported the Tennessee Three could be heading to the White House next — all of this while Tennessee Republicans have been cast as villains.

“I’ve been called a racist, misogynist, a white supremacist more in the last two months of my life than I have in my entire life, and by golly, I’m biting my tongue,” said Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, in audio that leaked to the Tennessee Holler of Republicans in a closed meeting discussing the fallout after the expulsion vote.

While behind the scenes they are bickering with one another, publicly, Republicans are standing behind their decision. When asked directly if he regretted the events of last week, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, wearily defended his caucus.

“I don’t believe anybody thought that they voted wrong. They all voted the way they thought they should’ve voted. They had debate and due process, so I feel like members feel like the vote was the way it should’ve gone,” Sexton said.

But their actions tell a different story. Republicans have shied away from posting much on social media, stopped discussing gun legislation for the year and dismissed top Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s call for something like a red flag law.

“The Republicans are not going to support a red flag law, period,” said Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville.

Zachary was amongst the group of Republicans that voted to expel Jones, Johnson and Pearson.

Now, Republicans are racing to end session and go back to their districts. They’re anticipating wrapping up as early as next week.

But simply ducking the news cycle won’t erase the damage that’s been done to Tennessee’s reputation. From bills criminalizing drag to charging minors as adults to barring discussion on systemic racism, the GOP’s priorities speaks for itself, says Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis.

“If you look at in totality of all the things that have happened in this session this year, and you can say years prior too, the policies and the treatment appear racist,” Camper said.

While Republicans are heading home with their tails tucked between their legs, the events of the last week have given Tennessee Democrats and other marginalized groups something they haven’t felt for a long time — hope.

Standing on the steps of the Tennessee Capitol on Thursday, Kimberly Owens-Pearson proudly looked on as her son, Rep. Justin J. Pearson, once again walked into the capitol.

“What was meant for bad turned out for good. And God, God elevated his voice so that the people could see what was going on. And now everyone knows, and he has so much people power. And we’re going to continue as a collective to fight for justice,” said Owens-Pearson.

Democrats may not be able to overtake a Republican supermajority in one election cycle, but they feel the pendulum may finally be swinging in their direction.

Blaise Gainey is a Political Reporter for WPLN News. He is the youngest of three siblings, husband and father of two. He previously held the State Government Reporter position for WFSU News in Tallahassee. He is from Apopka, Fla., and graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He previously worked for The Florida Channel and WTXL-TV. He is excited to move to another capital and report on state government. In his spare time, he enjoys watching sports, outdoor activities and enjoying family time.
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