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Tennessee’s GOP-led Capitol faces a highly unflattering spotlight

Republicans in Nashville set out to punish, silence and humiliate the Tennessee Three. But the trio are now stars, and GOP officials look vastly worse.


It was two weeks ago today when a well-armed shooter entered The Covenant School in downtown Nashville and killed six people, including three children. In the days that followed, Tennessee’s Republican-dominated state legislature had a wide variety of policy options to help protect the public.

Instead, the most notable step GOP officials took was expelling two Black Democratic legislators who broke decorum rules by protesting on the chamber floor against gun violence. A third Democratic state lawmaker — a white woman — joined the same protest but was not expelled.

As we discussed last week, if the goal was to silence elected legislators such as Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, the Republicans’ move backfired: Both men have quickly become national stars in Democratic politics; their message is now reaching a vastly larger audience; and there’s a very real possibility that Jones and Pearson will soon fill their own vacancies, returning to the institution they were just kicked out of.

But at the same time, while the expelled Democrats have seen their visibility improve in beneficial ways, last week’s developments in Nashville have also helped shine a spotlight on Tennessee Republicans — and it’s not at all flattering.

Politico’s Natalie Allison, who used to cover the state Capitol for The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, wrote a rather remarkable piece noting how unsurprising recent events are:

When I covered the Tennessee Capitol from 2018 to 2021, the family-values espousing Republican House speaker had to explain why his text message trail included discussions of pole-dancing women and his chief of staff’s sexual encounters in the bathroom of a hot chicken restaurant. After a Republican lawmaker was accused of sexually assaulting 15- and 16-year-old girls he had taught and coached, he was made chairman of the House education committee.

The same report went on to note a “famous peeing incident,” in which a Tennessee lawmaker’s office chair was urinated on in retaliation for some online criticism. “The actual identity of the Republican urinator is a closely-held secret among a small group of operatives who have bragged about witnessing it,” the Politico piece added.

What’s more, we’ve also learned quite a bit about the Tennessee GOP’s standards. Republican leaders in the state Capitol said last week that they had no choice but to hold expulsion votes against the Tennessee Three because they had violated the chamber’s rules of decorum.

But as a Washington Post report noted, Republicans chose not to take similar action against a GOP state lawmaker who was accused of sexual assault, a GOP state lawmaker who joked about lynching, and a GOP state lawmaker who defended the U.S. Constitution’s “Three-Fifths Compromise.”

The resulting image is one of a Republican-led chamber that sounds like a caricature of an out-of-control fraternity house.

The irony is striking: Republicans in Nashville set out to punish, silence and humiliate the Tennessee Three. But the trio have been turned into heroes, and GOP officials look vastly worse than they did before.