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Former Tennessee Rep. Justin Jones says he lost a seat, but voters lost their voice

Tennessee Rep. Justin Jones gestures during a vote on his expulsion from the state legislature at the State Capitol Building in Nashville on Thursday.
Seth Herald
Getty Images
Tennessee Rep. Justin Jones gestures during a vote on his expulsion from the state legislature at the State Capitol Building in Nashville on Thursday.

The Tennessee House's decision to expel two Democratic lawmakers on Thursday has prompted widespread accusations of racism and concerns about democracy, including from the former representatives themselves.

The vote came a week after three lawmakers interrupted a floor session with a megaphone, leading protesters in calls for stronger gun laws in the wake of the Nashville school shooting that left six people dead.

They said they were representing their constituents, while Republicans said they were leading an insurrection.

The Republican-controlled House voted along party lines to expel Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin Pearson, D-Memphis — both Black lawmakers under the age of 30. Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, held on to her seat by a single vote, and later suggested that's because she is white.

Jones agrees. Speaking to Morning Edition on Friday, he accused Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton of having "trafficked in racial rhetoric and racism."

"This is the consequence of a body that wants to suppress not just our vote, but the votes of our districts that are majority Black and brown," Jones said. "I represent one of the most diverse districts in Tennessee, and so now those 78,000 people have been silenced."

Sexton has not responded to NPR's request for comment on Jones' claims. But he told reporters after the vote that the decision was based on "the actions of those three that they did on the House floor on that day," and the body needing to follow the proper "process and procedures."

Jones says the lawmakers decided to bring the protest to the House floor on March 30 out of frustration with the legislature's inaction on gun control and hope that they would listen to the young people who were rallying at the Capitol. They were the largest protests Nashville has seen in the past decade, he says.

Jones represents a part of the city and says the community is still grieving and processing the trauma of the Covenant School shooting in late March.

"People are calling for action, and the first action we get from the Tennessee general assembly is to expel members for calling for common-sense gun laws," Jones adds.

So what happens next? Jones' and Pearson's districts will hold special elections to fill their newly vacant seats, and their county commissions can appoint an interim lawmaker to serve until then.

When asked whether he will run in the special election, Jones says "we are looking at all options right now."

Member station WPLN reports that the Metropolitan Council — the legislative body of the consolidated city-county government of Nashville and Davidson County — will hold a special meeting on Monday, where they may vote to reappoint Jones.

Jones says many members of the council have said they will do so.

"Now the question is: Will Speaker Cameron Sexton allow us to be seated, or will he once again try and subvert the will of the voters?" Jones adds.

Sexton told reporters that if the council does reappoint the expelled lawmakers, "we'll go through that process when the time comes." According to Tennessee's constitution, lawmakers can't be expelled more than once for the same offense.

And if the council does reappoint Jones, will he return and demand his seat?

"Most definitely," he says.

Jones spoke to Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about the events leading up to his expulsion and what he hopes to see now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Interview highlights

On whether expulsion is a fitting consequence for civil disobedience

This is not the natural consequence, this is the most extreme reaction that we saw that sets a very dangerous precedent for democracy. ... This is only the third time in Tennessee history that the House of Representatives has expelled its members, and the other times involved criminal or unethical activity. ... We were expelled for "breach of decorum," but in reality we were expelled for obedience to our oath of office to speak for our constituents and to make sure that our dissent and protest is marked for the journal when we see action that is injurious to the people.

On why lawmakers led the protest in the first place

Thousands of people — students, parents, teachers, grandparents, concerned community members — [were] here at the Tennessee Capitol, and the speaker refused to let them be heard. He refused to even let us talk about the issue of gun violence on the House floor that week. Any time we brought it up our microphones were cut off, we were ruled out of order, so we did not have even a venue to voice the grievances of our community. And so we had no other choice but to do something out of the ordinary and to try to stand in solidarity with disrupting business as normal, because business as normal was sticking our head in the sand when our children are dying.

On what House leadership did and didn't do after the protest

The next day the speaker already stripped my committees from me, he had my ID badge to the building turned off even though I was still a representative at the time, shut off my parking privileges to park at the legislature, and so that was the reaction that we saw.

But then because the speaker falsely mischaracterized our nonviolent peaceful protest and solidarity with the people as an insurrection, he escalated the situation not only against us but against those thousands of young people at the Capitol who were protesting, simply saying that they want to live, in the days following a mass shooting here in Nashville.

On whether he thinks lawmakers' youth, race and political leanings factored into their expulsion

That's absolutely correct. We're the two youngest Black lawmakers. I'm 27, Rep. Pearson is 28, and so we represent the voices of our generation. And race, most definitely. And I think Rep. Johnson said it, when she was not expelled and I was expelled — those were the first two cases heard — the news media asked and she said "I think it's because of skin color."

The audio interview was edited by Simone Popperl.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.