NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — One of the two Black Democrats who were expelled last week from the GOP-led Tennessee House was reinstated Monday after Nashville’s governing council voted to send him straight back to the Legislature.
The unanimous vote by the Nashville Metropolitan Council took only a few minutes to restore Rep. Justin Jones to office just four days after Republicans stripped him of his seat.
Moments later, Jones marched to the Capitol several blocks away. He took the oath of office on the steps and entered the building while supporters sang “This Little Light of Mine.”
A loud round of applause erupted as Jones walked into the chamber with Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson, who was also targeted for expulsion, but spared by one vote.
“To the people of Tennessee, I stand with you,” Jones said in his first statement on the House floor. “We will continue to be your voice here. And no expulsion, no attempt to silence us will stop us, but it will only galvanize and strengthen our movement. And we will continue to show up in the people’s house.
“Power to the people,” he shouted, to cheers. Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton told Jones’ supporters in the galleries to “please refrain from disrupting the proceedings.”
Republicans banished Jones and fellow lawmaker Justin Pearson over their role in a gun-control protest on the House floor in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting.
Pearson could be reappointed Wednesday at a meeting of the Shelby County Commission.
The expulsions on Thursday made Tennessee a new front in the battle for the future of American democracy and propelled the ousted lawmakers into the national spotlight. In the span of a few days, the two had raised thousands of campaign dollars and the Tennessee Democratic Party had received a new jolt of support from across the U.S.
Jones’ appointment is an interim basis. Special elections for the seats will take place in the coming months. Jones and Pearson have said they plan to run in the special election.
At the end of Monday’s evening session, Jones stood on the House floor and asked Sexton if he would be reappointed to legislative committees after being stripped of assignments last week. Jones also asked to receive full access to legislative buildings, which includes the the parking garage, and health care benefits. While Sexton referred some of the questions to human resources, the Republican leader said that traditionally in the past that appointed lawmakers do not receive committee assignments.
Pearson, meanwhile, told reporters Monday that “the lessons that we’ve gotten here is that people power works.”
“It is because thousands — millions — of people have decided that they will march, they will lift up their voices and elevate them to end gun violence to protect our communities and ensure that the voice of the people that we care to represent us are heard in the state Capitol and all across this country,” Pearson said.
As Jones was restored to his position, Nashville scored a win in court over a different move targeting the city by state-level Republican officials. A three-judge panel temporarily blocked implementation of a new law that would cut Nashville’s metro council in half, from 40 to 20 members.
Before the special session of Nashville’s governing council was to begin Monday, a couple of hundred people gathered in front of the Nashville courthouse, and more were pouring in. Some held signs reading, “No Justin, No Peace.” Inside the courthouse, a line of people waited outside the council chambers for the doors to open.
Rosalyn Daniel arrived early and waited in line to get a seat in the council chambers. She said she is not in Jones’ district but is a Nashville resident and concerned citizen.
“I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the Civil Rights Movement, so I understand why this is so important,” she said.
House Majority Leader William Lamberth and Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison said they will welcome back the expelled lawmakers if they are reinstated.
“Tennessee’s constitution provides a pathway back for expulsion,” they said in a statement. “Should any expelled member be reappointed, we will welcome them. Like everyone else, they are expected to follow the rules of the House as well as state law.”
Jones and Pearson quickly drew prominent supporters. President Joe Biden spoke with them, and Vice President Kamala Harris visited them in Nashville. The expelled lawmakers have filled out their legal teams. Eric Holder, who served as attorney general under former President Barack Obama, now represents Jones.
“The world is watching Tennessee,” attorneys for Jones and Pearson wrote to Sexton in a letter Monday. “Any partisan retributive action, such as the discriminatory treatment of elected officials, or threats or actions to withhold funding for government programs, would constitute further unconstitutional action that would require redress.”
Johnson, the third Democrat targeted for expulsion, also attracted national attention.
Political tensions rose when the three joined with hundreds of demonstrators who packed the Capitol last month to call for passage of gun-control measures.
As protesters filled galleries, the lawmakers approached the front of the House chamber with a bullhorn and participated in a chant. The scene unfolded days after the shooting at the Covenant School, a private Christian school where six people were killed, including three children.
Johnson, a white lawmaker from Knoxville, was spared expulsion by a single vote. Republican lawmakers justified splitting their votes by saying Johnson had less of a role in the protest — she didn’t speak into the megaphone, for example.
Johnson also suggested race was likely a factor in why Jones and Pearson were ousted but not her. She told reporters it “might have to do with the color of our skin.”
GOP leaders have said the expulsions — a mechanism used only a handful times since the Civil War — had nothing to do with race and instead were necessary to avoid setting a precedent that lawmakers’ disruptions of House proceedings through protest would be tolerated.
Expulsion has generally been reserved as a punishment for lawmakers accused of serious misconduct, not used as a weapon against political opponents.