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The Tennessee GOP's move to stifle dissent is likely to backfire

The Republican majority in Nashville set out to silence the Tennessee Three. In the process, the GOP helped make the Democrats heroes to a worthy cause.


In the wake of the deadly mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville last week, Tennessee’s Republican-dominated state legislature had a wide variety of options. The GOP majority could’ve taken steps to protect the public by considering a red flag law, for example. Republican lawmakers also had the option of expanding background checks or advancing an assault weapons ban.

The good news is that GOP policymakers in the Volunteer State did, in fact, take dramatic action the week after the massacre. The bad news is, the dramatic action Tennessee Republicans took was to stifle dissent in the state Capitol. NBC News reported overnight:

Republican legislators in Tennessee voted Thursday to expel two Black Democrats from the state House over their protests on the chamber floor against gun violence last week, while a vote to expel a third, white Democratic representative fell short. In the first vote, Republicans expelled Rep. Justin Jones. The second vote, to kick out Rep. Gloria Johnson, failed. Republicans then voted to remove Rep. Justin Pearson.

The series of events began with last week’s school shooting, which generated large demonstrations at the state Capitol, with Tennesseans pleading with Republicans to take steps to protect the public from gun violence.

As part of the protest, three Democratic members of the state House minority headed to the chamber’s floor to voice their support for the demonstrators’ cause. Silenced by GOP leaders, the trio — Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — spoke through a megaphone, calling on their colleagues to “protect kids, not guns.”

Having broken the decorum rules of the institution, the Democratic lawmakers were soon after stripped of their committee assignments. But for members of the Republican majority — some of whom equated a peaceful protest with the Jan. 6 attack, despite the fact that no one broke into the state Capitol, no one was harmed, and there was no property damage in Nashville — that level of retaliation was deemed insufficient.

It led the GOP majority to take the extraordinary step of expelling two of the three Democratic legislators.

Adding insult to injury, Republicans expelled Jones and Pearson, who are Black. The expulsion vote for Johnson, who is white, fell a vote short.

Subtle, it was not.

None of this is normal. As a New York Times report explained:

Six lawmakers were expelled from the Tennessee House in 1866, immediately after the Civil War, for seeking to prevent the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people. Since then, the House of Representatives in Tennessee has voted only twice to oust a lawmaker. Both votes were bipartisan: in 1980, after a sitting lawmaker was convicted of soliciting a bribe, and in 2016, after the House majority whip faced allegations of sexual misconduct while in office.

To think that Jones and Pearson belong in the same category is plainly insane.

At a superficial level, I can appreciate the idea of punishing members who broke the rules. But the concept of proportionality matters: These members lent their voices to a just cause. The idea that they had to be kicked out of the legislature altogether — in effect, undoing the will of the voters in their districts — because they vocally advocated for gun reforms is indefensible.

Stepping back, if GOP leaders don’t yet fully appreciate the degree to which this is likely to backfire, this will probably dawn on them soon.

For one thing, over the course of this week, the story about the Tennessee Three made the transition from local controversy in Nashville to a national outrage. As the dust settled on yesterday’s developments, for example, the White House issued a statement condemning the expulsions.

“Today’s expulsion of lawmakers who engaged in peaceful protest is shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent,” President Joe Biden said. “Rather than debating the merits of the issue, these Republican lawmakers have chosen to punish, silence, and expel duly-elected representatives of the people of Tennessee.”

He wasn’t alone. There were related condemnations from the Congressional Black Caucus, among other congressional Democrats from both chambers. Barack Obama added a statement of his own.

The Republican majority in Nashville, in other words, set out to silence the Tennessee Three. In the process, the GOP helped make the Democrats heroes to a worthy cause.

What’s more, if Republicans think they “won” the broader fight by kicking Jones and Pearson out of the legislature, they’ll soon learn otherwise: There’s nothing stopping the two men from running anew for the seats they held. In fact, it’s a safe bet they’re going to win, rejoining the institution that unjustly expelled them.

They may not even have to wait too long: Local officials have the authority to appoint temporary legislators to fill the vacancies, and no one should be surprised if they choose Jones and Pearson.

It’s no secret that Republican politics in Tennessee have been a bit of a mess lately. It was early last month when Gov. Bill Lee signed the nation’s first statewide restrictions on drag performances, despite a photograph emerging showing the GOP governor — while he was in high school — wearing a wig, a pearl necklace and a short-skirted cheerleader’s uniform intended for a girl.

About a week later, Lee’s lieutenant governor, Republican Randy McNally, was discovered to be commenting rather frequently on Instagram, responding to shirtless photos of a young gay man.

It was the week after that when another Tennessee Republican, Rep. Andy Ogles, already struggling with allegations that he repeatedly lied about his professional and academic background, was accused of raising money for a “burial garden” for families of stillborn babies, but then failing to actually spend the money.

But to fully appreciate just how out of control GOP politics has become in the Volunteer State, look no further than the results of yesterday’s expulsion votes.