A Nashville-area county council on Monday voted to reinstate Representative Justin Jones to the Tennessee House of Representatives, reversing Republican lawmakers who ousted Jones and another young, Black legislator last week for staging a gun control protest on the House floor.
The dispute in the Tennessee House of Representatives has captured national attention, pitting Democrats seeking to advance gun control and racial equality against Republicans who have wielded their supermajority in the statehouse as they see fit.
With more than a two-thirds majority in the House, Republicans on Thursday voted to kick out Jones and fellow Democrat Justin Pearson, but spared a white representative who joined them in their rule-breaking demonstration in the well of the House floor on March 30.
They had been protesting the legislature’s stance on gun violence prevention in the wake of the March 27 shooting at a Nashville school that killed three 9-year-old students and three staff members.
County legislatures are empowered to fill local vacancies to the Tennessee statehouse until a special election can be held to fill out the remainder of the two-year term.
The Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County voted 36-0 to make Jones, 27, the interim representative. Jones had been elected to Tennessee’s House of Representatives last year.
The vote set off a celebration among some 600 protesters gathered outside the Metro Council.
They staged a loud demonstration, shouting “Whose house? Our house!” and “No Justin, no peace” while displaying signs that read, “Protect kids, not guns” and “Stop sales of AR15.”
Jones addressed the crowd before the vote, accusing the Republicans of operating “plantation politics” and abuse of power.
“Thank you, because it’s galvanized a nationwide movement,” Jones said. “The world is watching Tennessee.”
Jones attended Fisk University in Nashville on the John R. Lewis Scholarship for Social Activism and has been arrested more than a dozen times for nonviolent protests, according to his campaign biography.
Jones and Pearson, 28, have both said they hoped to be reappointed and that they would run again in special elections.
The House will seat whomever the county legislatures appoint “as the constitution requires,” a spokesperson for Tennessee Speaker of the House of Representatives Cameron Sexton told Reuters via email earlier Monday.
Pearson could get a similar vote for reinstatement on Wednesday, when the Shelby County Board of Commissioners will consider reappointing him to his Memphis district.
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners has already appointed Pearson once before, in January, to fill a legislative vacancy. He then won a special election in March.
A Memphis native, Pearson previously worked as a community organizer and activist who participated in protests against an oil pipeline through Memphis that was canceled, according to his campaign biography.
Republicans also targeted Gloria Johnson, who is white, for expulsion, as she joined Jones and Pearson in the floor protest. But the vote to expel her came up one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed, prompting criticisms that race was a factor.
The expulsions have become a rallying cry for Democrats nationally over the issues of gun violence and racial inequality, and an opportunity to push back against Republican dominance at the state level.
While Democrats are competitive nationally, winning the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections, Republicans control many of the statehouses where they have large majorities and where issues such as abortion and gun control are often decided.