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House Speaker Cameron Sexton, far right, with House Republican Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison to his left. // John Partipilo

A petty and small-minded Tennessee supermajority can't last

Foolish moves in the statehouse miss the point and could spell the beginning of the end for GOP dominance


By Holly McCall, Tennessee Lookout

Tennessee’s Republican legislative supermajority is suffering an apparent collective loss of its senses, as many lawmakers appear deaf to the requests of Tennesseans to develop gun safety legislation and blind to how hard-headed and insensitive they appear not only in the Volunteer State, but to the nation.

I’ve long said Tennessee is a forgotten state, politically speaking. National Democrats gave up on us more than two decades ago, after Al Gore failed to win his home state in the 2000 presidential election — a victory that would have obviated the debate in Florida over hanging chads. And national Republicans rarely spend resources in a state that has boasted a majority GOP legislature and federal delegation for more than a decade: there’s no battleground to be won in Tennessee.

Now, at least, Americans see Tennessee for what it’s become, not a benignly pleasant Southern state with Dolly Parton and the lack of violent segregationist history like Alabama and Mississippi has, but a state governed by petty and small-minded lawmakers seemingly incapable of introspection.

A shooter killed six people, including three children, on March 27 at a private Christian school in Nashville and three days later, more than a thousand protesters — many of them teen high school students from the Middle Tennessee area — descended upon the Capitol to petition lawmakers to please enact some kind of legislation that might help keep students like them from getting killed in school.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton with Rep. Jason Zachary. R-Knoxville, on April 10, the day of a GOP House Caucus meeting one insider called “the airing of grievances.” // John Partipilo

And then the GOP got itself into a mess, spreading hysterical lies about what had happened and hyperbolizing. They kept right on going from there, and they really stepped in it by trying to expel lawmakers who’d briefly spoken that day to acknowledge the many future voters crowding their doorstep, begging for gun policy reform.

The expulsion thing ultimately didn’t work. Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who are Black, were voted out but got right back into their seats thanks to those tasked with appointing replacements, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, skipped expulsion by just one vote.

The whole Tennessee GOP body just looked foolish.

And yet, even though Republican Rep. Sam Whitson of Franklin had warned his leadership expulsion was likely to backfire, what did the GOP caucus do after the incident made national news for weeks?

They whined. They doubled down, blaming others for being perceived as racists. They have continued to wage a social media scrimmage — “war” is too strong of a word — against anyone who perceives their unforced errors as dunderheaded and misguided.

Leaked audio first reported by the Tennessee Holler revealed Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, claimint three Black Democratic lawmakers have called Republicans “racists.” The Democrats say that while they didn’t make those remarks, incidents like the one in 2019 when a Republican made fried chicken jokes about an African-American colleague or more recently, when a GOP lawmaker suggested bringing back lynching — “hanging from a tree” — could, in fact, lead others to believe Tennessee Republicans have a tendency to engage in racist behavior.

Debate ensued about how if Johnson had only been expelled along with her colleagues, the Republicans wouldn’t have seemed racist.

The gentlemen missed the point: They wouldn’t have looked any better by expelling the 60-year-old Johnson, who uses a scooter to navigate the halls of the Capitol and legislative office building and is one of only a handful of female lawmakers. No, had they expelled her, they could be sexist as well as racist.

Freshman Rep. Jody Barrett, R-Dickson, is accused by Zachary in the audio of “hanging out to dry” the caucus, since he was one of seven Republicans to vote against expelling Johnson. Barrett, an attorney, comes across in the audio as a well-reasoned person.

Now, at least, Americans see Tennessee for what it’s become, not a benignly pleasant Southern state with Dolly Parton and the lack of violent segregationist history like Alabama and Mississippi has, but a state governed by petty and small-minded lawmakers seemingly incapable of introspection.

But since the leaked audio, which likely came from an April 10 caucus meeting one insider characterized as an “airing of grievances,” Barrett has apparently attempted to earn his bona fides back through Twitter attacks.

On Sunday, he responded to a tweet by Jones about the need for safe gun laws by calling Jones’s actions “morally insane.”

On Tuesday, he characterized the Jones, Johnson and Pearson as “consumat(ing) their takeover last night with a full on assault on God” because the three, among others, voted against adding the phrase “In God We Trust” to the Tennessee state seal.

Barrett was joined in the trolling by the Twitter account for the House Republican Caucus, which on Tuesday accused Pearson of throwing a “temper tantrum,” using the same condescending language Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, directed towards Pearson in his expulsion hearing.

Tennessee Republicans like to point out they have a 75-24 advantage of Democrats and can do what they want to, and they may be enjoying these fraternity house tactics.

But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Protests at the Capitol for safe gun laws are now in the fourth week. Both Republican and Democratic women, many who consider themselves Christians, are coming together over the issue of not losing their kids to gun violence.

The former executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party is calling on Gov. Bill Lee to expand extreme orders of protection. Brent Leatherwood, now president of Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose children attend Covenant, wrote “I beg of you to put down the weapons of partisan warfare in this moment, and instead put on the cloak of serious and thoughtful policymaking.”

Since the March 27 Covenant shooting, there have been mass shootings at a Louisville bank and a Dadeville, Ala. birthday party for teens. Tennesseans across partisan lines are realizing that yes: America has a gun problem.

And while we grieve and national media continue to watch, state House Republicans squabble about the so-called “Tennessee Three.”

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal.

Now more than ever, tough and fair journalism is important. The Tennessee Lookout is your watchdog, telling the stories of politics and policy that affect the people of the Volunteer State.

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