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‘A pack of dogs refusing to stop biting’: Critics slam ‘unprecedented’ Tennessee decision to expel Democrats

Republicans are accused of using gerrymandering, procedural tactics, and now expulsions to limit power of opposition. Josh Marcus reports

Friday 07 April 2023 02:16 BST
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Rep Justin Pearson raises his fist on the day Republicans voted to expel him
Rep Justin Pearson raises his fist on the day Republicans voted to expel him (AP)

In the wake of the Nashville mass shooting, critics say the decision on Thursday from Tennessee Republicans to expel two Democrats from the state House of Representatives for joining in a gun control protest on capitol grounds is a “completely unprecedented” abuse of power in the state and country at large.

Carrie Russell, a lecturer in political science and expert on Southern politics at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, told The Independent the votes were an “exercise of power solely for power’s sake” with a ruthlessness akin to “a pack of dogs refusing to stop biting.” She noted that in the rare instances anyone is removed from office in Tennessee or any other state, it’s usually after a legislator has been convicted of a serious crime.

“No laws – local, state or federal – were broken here,” she said of the protest last Thursday at the heart of the expulsion, where three Democratic lawmakers – Reps Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson, and Justin Pearson – spoke from the House floor and joined in chants with protesters who had entered the capitol building.

“They were well within their constitutional rights to speak out during the House recess, per the state and federal constitution.”

There have only been three people removed from the Tennessee House in the last 200 years, according to Democratic lawmakers, for severe crimes including taking bribes, serial sexual harassment, and refusing to give citizenship to formerly enslaved people in the late 1800s.

“Many viewers also recognize this for the politically manufactured excision of those who would challenge the status quo of completely unchecked gun legislation in the state of Tennessee,” Ms Russell added.

Others agreed.

During the Thursday votes, in which Reps Jones and Pearson were ultimately removed from their seats, Joe Biden condemned the process and said Republicans in the state should be more focused on limiting gun violence.

“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,” the president wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “It’s shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.”

So far, the Republican majority in the Tennessee government has proposed only enhancements to school security and increased funding for police, but nothing that would limit access to guns. Some in the state GOP want to further loosen Tennessee’s gun laws, which already permit most people 21 and older to possess a concealed pistol without a permit.

'Tennessee Three' receive hero's welcome in state capitol from anti-gun protesters

According to Ms Russell, the decision to strip the legislators of their seat is part of a larger, oftentimes racist and sexist dynamic in the Tennessee statehouse, where Republicans have been accused of using gerrymandering and procedural tactics like declining to let liberal legislators speak to dilute the power of Democrats at the state level.

“The way that the members have been treated, the way that the leadership speaks to these members and uses code words like ‘ineffective,’ ‘attention-seeking,’ ‘disrespectful,’ ‘aggressive’ – it’s clear that the ability of these three members to repeatedly garner the support of thousands of young people and outspoken celebrity activists that support them has shaken the Republican leadership to the point of feeling their only option is to expel these member,” she added.

“These three have refused to comply with the routine expectations of the Republican leadership, expectations that demand staying ‘in their place,’ turning a blind eye and tolerating the dismissive treatment.”

Earlier this week, Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton said the gun violence protest on the floor might have been worse than the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, in which five people died and scores of police officers were wounded as Trump supporters violently attempted to block the certification of the 2020 presidential election results.

On Thursday, Rep Jones pushed back against this comparison in remarks.

“I was shocked to have the Speaker of House condemn mothers and grandmothers and children and concerned clergy, to lie on them, and say they were insurrectionists,” Rep Jones said. “At no point was there violence. At no point did we encourage violence. In fact what we were doing was calling for the end of gun violence that is terrorizing our children day after day after day, and all we offer are moments of silence.”

Rep Justin Jones gestures to supporters (AP)

Prior to the expulsion vote, Rep Pearson argued he and his colleagues were being singled out for a racist, undemocratic attack.

“It is no coincidence that the two youngest Black lawmakers in the state of Tennessee, and one of two women, are on trial today,” he told CNN ahead of the vote. “That is not accidental. This is what happens when you lose democracy.”

He and Rep Jones, both of whom are Black, were ultimately removed from office, while Rep Gloria Johnson, who is white, managed to survive her expulsion vote.

Republicans have said their effort is a way to maintain the honour and order of the Tennessee House of Representatives.

During debate surrounding Mr Jones’s expulsion, Representative Gino Bulso, a Republican from Brentwood, defended the removal process, calling it an appropriate response to the “mutiny” that was the floor protest.

“What we’re doing today is upholding our constitution,” he said. “We are protecting the integrity of this body.”

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