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Memphis returns second expelled Tennessee lawmaker back to statehouse

2023-04-12T19:15:33Z

Representative Justin J. Pearson speaks to media after Representative Justin Jones was reinstated days after the Republican majority Tennessee House of Representatives voted to expel both of them for their roles in a gun control demonstration on the statehouse floor, at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., April 10, 2023. REUTERS/Cheney Orr/File Photo

Local government officials in Memphis, Tennessee, voted on Wednesday to return the second of two Democratic state lawmakers who were expelled last week for protesting gun violence on the chamber floor.

In a rare rebuke last week, Republicans who control the state House of Representatives voted to kick out Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two Black men in their late 20s who had recently joined the legislature, over their rule-breaking peaceful protest on the floor on March 30.

Jones has already been sworn back in after councilors in Nashville, where his district is located, voted unanimously on Monday to restore him on an interim basis until a special election can be held for the remainder of the two-year term.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, where Democrats hold a supermajority, voted in favor of doing the same for Pearson at a special meeting in Memphis, where Pearson’s district is located. Seven of the board’s 13 councilors were present for the meeting, and all seven voted in favor of Pearson’s return.

“You can’t expel hope,” Pearson said at the meeting after the vote. “You can’t expel justice. You can’t expel our voice.” He is expected to return to the State Capitol in Nashville on Thursday to be sworn back in.

In announcing the meeting, Mickell Lowery, the board’s chairman and a Democrat, had called the expulsions “unfortunate.”

“I believe the expulsion of State Representative Justin Pearson was conducted in a hasty manner without consideration of other corrective action methods,” Lowery said in a statement.

Jones and Pearson helped lead the demonstration on March 30 in the well of the House floor, disrupting a legislative session, along with Representative Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, a fellow Democrat. They were supported by angry Nashville residents outraged by a mass shooting at a school in the city earlier in the week in which a former student killed three 9-year-olds and three staff members.

Johnson narrowly escaped also being expelled for breaching House decorum rules. She told reporters after the votes that she believed she survived because she is white, and all three have called the expulsions anti-democratic.

The expulsions drew national attention to Jones and Pearson, including a visit last week by Vice President Kamala Harris, a Democrat, to show support, and animated many voters in the Democrat-leaning cities they represent in a largely Republican-favoring state.

Democrats in the U.S. Senate have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether the expelled lawmakers’ constitutional rights were violated.

The Tennessee Democratic Party has already taken in more than $400,000 in political contributions since last week, more than the party received during the previous three months combined, according to the state chairman, Hendrell Remus.

Before marching with supporters to the commissioners’ meeting, Pearson, joined by Jones and Johnson, addressed a crowd of about 500 outside the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

“This is a democracy that they’re scared of,” Pearson said of the cheering crowd before him, “because this is a democracy that changes the status quo.”

Jones said he and Pearson would head to the House in Nashville on Thursday and call on House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican, to resign, calling him an “enemy to multiracial democracy.

“Rather than pass commonsense gun laws, they passed a resolution to expel the two youngest Black members in the General Assembly,” Jones said.

Sexton did not respond to a request for comment. Earlier this week, the House Republicans, who have a supermajority, issued a statement saying they will “welcome” back any expelled state lawmakers returned by county-level governments, so long as those members follow the legislature’s rules.

(This story has been refiled to fix punctuation in paragraph 12)

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