NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A growing chorus is pushing back against Tennessee Republicans seeking to oust three House Democrats for using a bullhorn to shout support for pro-gun control protesters in the House chamber, while the GOP has previously resisted removing its own members even when weighing criminal allegations.
Most recently, the Republican-controlled Statehouse declined to take action against a member accused of sexual misconduct, as well as those who have faced indictments or came under pressure for liking nearly nude social media posts.
Nevertheless, Democratic Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson face possible expulsion for taking to the front of the House and chanting back and forth with gun control supporters who packed the gallery days after The Covenant School shooting in Nashville that killed six people, including three children.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican, quickly promised the lawmakers would face consequences, warning he would not allow them to set a new precedent for breaking decorum.
In the days since, conservative figures have demanded Johnson, Jones and Pearson be removed, with many drawing a false equivalent between last week’s protest and the Jan. 6, 2021 siege at the nation’s Capitol.
House Minority Leader Karen Camper described her Democratic colleagues’ actions as “good trouble,” a nod to late U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ guiding principal on civil disobedience.
“When I saw thousands of people — mostly children and teenagers — protesting and demanding action from us after the slaying of six innocent people, including three 9-year-old children, it was impossible to sit idly by and continue with business as usual,” Pearson wrote in a letter to House members on Monday.
House Democrats, who number just 23 vs. 75 Republicans, say the GOP is more eager to take action against colleagues than address gun access and other systemic issues that led to the fatal shooting in Nashville.
Three Republicans members filed resolutions to expel Johnson, Jones and Justin and successfully set the deciding vote for Thursday.
Pearson and Jones are both first-term lawmakers. Johnson has served in the House since 2019 after previously being elected to the chamber for a term in 2013. All three have been highly critical of GOP leadership.
As scrutiny over the expulsion effort increased, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday criticized Republican lawmakers’ focus on rebuking Democrats for protesting rather than addressing solutions to avoid another school shooting.
“What did the Republican legislators do? They’re trying to expel these three Democratic legislators who joined in the protest,” Jean-Pierre said, adding that GOP members are “shrugging in the face of yet another tragic school shooting while our kids continue to pay the price.”
Expulsions in the Tennessee General Assembly are extremely rare and considered an extraordinary action.
In 2019, lawmakers faced pressure to expel former Republican Rep. David Byrd after he faced accusations of sexual misconduct dating to when he was a high school basketball coach three decades ago.
At the time, Sexton said it was up to Byrd to decide whether he should continue in the Legislature.
“You have to balance the will of the voters and overturning the will of the voters,” Sexton told WPLN in 2019, noting that the allegations at issue dated from 30 years earlier.
Byrd decided not to run for re-election in 2022.
Johnson criticized the GOP for failing to expel Byrd while going after three members for merely speaking without permission.
Under Tennessee’s constitution, the House or Senate can punish lawmakers for disorderly behavior and expel them with a two-thirds vote.
Often, expulsions have centered on a criminal conviction. Tennessee’s state law and Constitution disqualify convicted felons from holding public office.
Last year, the state Senate expelled Democrat Katrina Robinson after she was convicted of using about $3,400 in federal grant money on wedding expenses instead of her nursing school.
Before that case, state lawmakers last ousted a House member in 2016 when the chamber voted 70-to-2 remove Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham after an attorney general’s investigation detailed allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women during his four years in office.
If Johnson, Jones or Pearson are expelled, the county commissions in their districts would get to pick replacements to serve until a special election in several months. The three would remain eligible to run in those.