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Bullhorn politics

IN THE NEWS | State government increasingly reflects national disunity


Justin Jones walks to his desk in the Tennessee House chamber to collect his belongings after being expelled from the Legislature on April 6. George Walker IV/AP

Bullhorn politics
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Long before he was expelled from Tennessee’s House of Representatives, Rep. Justin Jones had a history of rancorous confrontation.

As a community activist, he was charged with assault in 2019 for allegedly throwing coffee at lawmakers in an elevator and calling former Speaker Glen Casada a “racist.” Authorities later accused him of throwing a traffic cone at a vehicle during a 2020 protest for police reform.

And right before Republican lawmakers expelled him and fellow Democratic Rep. Justin Pearson from the House on April 6 for leading a bullhorn protest on the chamber floor in favor of gun control, he told Indian American Rep. Sabi Kumar, a Republican and retired surgeon, “You put a brown face on white supremacy.”

The expulsion votes fell largely along party lines—but ultimately backfired on Republicans as media attention catapulted Jones and Pearson onto the national stage. Local Tennessee officials reinstated the two Democrats to the House less than a week later.

The situation highlighted the sharp ­partisan divisions in American political discourse, particularly in legislative chambers, where dialogue and compromise have long been keys to successful policymaking. It’s an environment in which both Republicans and Democrats seem prone to increasingly ­drastic measures.

“They could have censured the members instead, without causing a backlash,” said Sean Evans, a political scientist at Union University, about the Tennessee controversy. “They’ve made [the protesting legislators] martyrs, and now the Democratic party is fundraising like crazy.”

The House floor protest that triggered the expulsions erupted March 30, three days after the mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville that left seven dead. Calling for changes in gun laws, Jones and Pearson, both freshman Democratic lawmakers, interrupted the House session chanting “No action, no peace,” using a ­bullhorn and pounding the podium. Rep. Gloria Johnson, a fellow Democrat, joined their protest.

A week later, Republicans, who control the chamber 75-24, ousted Jones and Pearson for violating chamber rules of decorum. They did not expel Johnson. (Johnson later said that’s because she is a white woman and Jones and Pearson are black, but lawmakers said it was because she did not pound the podium or use the bullhorn.)

Jones, along with Gloria Johnson and Justin Pearson, calls on his colleagues to pass gun control legislation.

Jones, along with Gloria Johnson and Justin Pearson, calls on his colleagues to pass gun control legislation. George Walker IV/The Tennessean via AP

But the next week, the Nashville Metropolitan Council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to send Jones and Pearson back to the statehouse as interim representatives. The Tennessee Constitution allows such a path to ­reinstatement by legislators’ home districts. When a special election is held at a yet-to-be-determined date, Jones and Pearson can run for their offices again.

Jones said he planned to introduce 15 new gun control bills in the House. Meanwhile, the duo have garnered TV appearances, a call from President Joe Biden, and more than $600,000 in donations.

The pressure for gun control in Tennessee also elicited action from Republican Gov. Bill Lee. On April 11, he signed an executive order aimed at strengthening background checks for gun sales. He also asked the Legislature to pass an extreme order of protection law, sometimes called a red flag law. Such laws allow someone to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from a person determined to be ­mentally unstable or dangerous—or block their ability to buy one.

Whether the legislative dispute is gun control or something else, chamber misconduct is historically rare. In 1856, Democratic Rep. Preston Brooks stormed into the U.S. Senate chamber and assaulted Republican abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane, ­seriously injuring him.

Look at California, New York, New Jersey , and the ability of conservatives and Republicans to have a voice in those chambers. They’re not any more happy than the Democrats in Tennessee.

In 2016, Democrats, led by former Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., staged a 25-hour sit-in on the U.S. House floor, demanding gun control legislation ­following an Orlando, Fla., nightclub shooting. No one was expelled.

The Tennessee House has ousted members three other times. In 1866, it expelled six members for contempt of House authority. In 1980, the chamber expelled Rep. Robert Fisher for accepting a bribe, and in 2016, it expelled Rep. Jeremy Durham for sexual misconduct. Those votes were bipartisan.

Typically, expulsion is prompted by behavior both parties consider egregious, such as criminal or sexual misconduct, notes Peter Wielhouwer, professor of political science at Western Michigan University. But Tennessee Republicans did not need bipartisan support. Wielhouwer suggests this supermajority—and lack of dialogue across the aisle—points to a potentially unhealthy state democracy.

The problem isn’t unique to Tennessee or the GOP. “Look at California, New York, New Jersey, and the ability of conservatives and Republicans to have a voice in those chambers,” Wielhouwer says. “They’re not any more happy than the Democrats in Tennessee. … A lack of willingness to listen to the other side filters down to you and me and the grassroots level. It’s terrible for our republic.”

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