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The “Tennessee Three:” Democratic Former Rep. Justin Jones, Nashville; Rep. Gloria Johnson, Knoxville; and former Rep. Justin Pearson, Memphis. The Tennessee General Assembly expelled Jones and Pearson on Thursday, April 6, over “decorum.” // John Partipilo

World watches as Tennessee House kicks out two young Black reps for 15 seconds of protest


By Sam Stockard, Tennessee Lookout

Oil supplies won’t be depleted. It turns out Tennessee House Republicans have only a partial case of tin man’s disease – shortage of heart – as they expelled only two of three Democrats a week after the trio disrupted the House floor in a rally against weak gun laws.

The predictability of the supermajority – not just on the expulsion of members who raised a little hell – was getting boring because no matter how strong the minority’s argument, they usually go down in flames. It seemed all three would be removed, but it’s an even worse look when you eject two Black men and keep a white woman, no matter what the evidence.

But in this case, Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville survived by one vote while freshmen Reps. Justin Pearson of Memphis and Justin Jones of Nashville, both young Black men, fell by the wayside, though they could return in short order when the Metro Nashville Council and Shelby County Commission make appointments to fill their vacancies.

House members seemed to make up the rules as they went – and it all happened with the world watching – because they really don’t have any rules for expulsion hearings. After all, only two House members had been expelled in the state history until Thursday and not for breaking decorum.

For example, they got stuck on whether former Reps. John Mark Windle and Mike Stewart should be able to speak for Johnson after making initial statements.Windle and Stewart weren’t allowed to talk again, but they made a difference early.

Windle, once a conservative Democrat from Livingston, turned emotional as he defended Johnson, calling the resolution an “absolute falsehood” and perpetration of “fraud.

Young protesters sing outside the House chambers in the Tennessee State Capitol. // John Partipilo

Former Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis speaks to Sarah Neumann, whose 5-year-old attends Covenant School in Nashville, where six people were shot and killed on March 27. // John Partipilo

From the outset, Democrats put Republicans on their legal heels. The GOP’s argument was that the trio took over the House floor for about four to 15 seconds and caused a 45-minute delay in the people’s business.

Anyone who was there that day, though, would say Speaker Cameron Sexton could have had troopers escort them out immediately and then expel them, which is what some wanted to do. They were afraid of making them martyrs and returned to regular business, with Speaker Cameron Sexton even calling on Pearson to speak. But now they’ve made them the kings and queen of the downtrodden, putting them on a long path of political fundraising.

Thursday’s proceedings started with introduction of a video no Democrats had seen, some recorded by a House member last week, even though representatives are prohibited from shooting cell-phone video while in session.

Portions of the video were likely recorded by Rep. Justin Lafferty, who leaned against a desk at the front of the chamber last week and recorded as Johnson, Pearson and Jones took to the well and rallied people in the balcony in a call to end gun violence.

It all stems from the Covenant School shooting in which six people were gunned down by Audrey Hale.

State Rep. Bo Mitchell pointed out Lafferty was the likely video culprit, yet the Knoxville Republican dodged punishment. Incidentally, he’s the one Jones accused of simple assault for grabbing his cell phone and allegedly pushing him before a scrum broke out on the House floor. They were both shooting video when it happened Monday night.

Oddly enough, the video probably wound up helping Johnson because it showed her mainly standing beside the other two as they used a bullhorn to exhort the crowd. She wasn’t shouting, banging on the table or using the horn.

Rep. Gino Bulso, the Brentwood Republican and attorney who pretended to be the prosecutor of Johnson, also spent a good deal of wind trying to get her to admit she broke the rules, even though she admitted at least 10 times she might have broken the rules by going to the well without recognition. Some could say he even badgered her.

“My conduct on that day was what I felt compelled in my heart to do for my constituents,” Johnson said, as she defended herself.

But while Johnson benefited from the representation of Windle and Stewart, as well as the video, Jones did himself no favors by calling Speaker Cameron Sexton a liar and lambasting the Republican supermajority as “drunk with power” and beholden to the NRA and gun lobby, even if it is.

Nor did Jones improve his chances when he accused Bulso of saying “essentially that Justin is an uppity negro. How dare he come before this body and not bow down.”

Apparently, they had a not-so-nice confrontation in a Cordell Hull elevator too.

An exchange between Jones and Republican Rep. Sabi Kumar of Springfield didn’t turn out well, either.

Kumar, whose family moved to the United States from India more than 50 years ago, told Jones he has talent but looks at “everything from the lens of race,” disrupting proceedings, attacking committee chairmen and calling him (Kumar) a “brown face.”

“You shoved your finger in my face and said, ‘Kumar, they will never accept you,’” Kumar said.

Jones responded that he told Kumar, “you put a brown face on white supremacy.”

That might not be a great idea, if you’re really trying to win a vote. But maybe he wasn’t, and it probably didn’t matter anyway because Republican leaders said afterward Jones’ expulsion stemmed from a culmination of confrontations.

Pearson wasn’t quite as confrontational, and it seemed he might eke out a victory. But when he went toe to toe with House Majority Leader William Lamberth, who appeared ready to cut him some slack, his chance to keep the seat crumbled. He lost when 69 voted to expel.

“The erosion of democracy in the state Legislature is what got us here,” said Pearson, an electric speaker who accused Republicans of persecuting him by not allowing him to speak and cutting out the LGBTQ community and other marginalized people.

He, Jones and Johnson claimed they had no choice but to go to the well to protest the state’s lackadaisical gun laws.

But while veteran Rep. Joe Towns of Memphis called the proceedings a “melee of madness,” the controlling party rolled on, arguing they were nothing but attention-seekers.

Did the whole affair have racial tones? Probably, and that could spell trouble for the entire state. These two expelled lawmakers made the majority white male body feel uncomfortable, especially when they realized they didn’t have much of a legal argument.

The question is: How long will it take for the expulsion to backfire if not already, because this ain’t over.

“Even from the bottom of slave ships, my people didn’t quit,” Pearson said.

Abortion bill goes to gov

Despite fears that women could still suffer from risky pregnancies, the Senate approved a House bill this week creating what many believe is too narrow a path for abortions when a woman’s life is in danger.

The Republican-backed bill by Sen. Richard Briggs of Knoxville deems abortions for ectopic and molar pregnancies and to remove a dead fetus are not a criminal act and wouldn’t put a physician in danger of facing a felony charge. The measure also removes the “affirmative defense” portion of the state’s abortion ban, meaning doctors won’t be presumed guilty and forced to defend their decisions in court if they perform an abortion to save a woman or stop a debilitating injury.

State Sen. London Lamar, a Memphis Democrat who supports a return to Roe v. Wade laws, argued that the bill would force doctors to wait until the last minute to make a decision to save a woman in the midst of a deadly pregnancy.

Lamar, who lost a child two years ago and is pregnant again, told the Senate, “I’m begging you to give me and women a shot” as she introduced an amendment to widen the bill. Republicans immediately shot it down.

The measure shifts from “good-faith medical judgment” in the original bill to “reasonable medical judgment,” a sticking point for critics who point out doctors will have to consult their attorneys before taking action.

Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville // John Partipilo

Sen. Charlane Oliver grew emotional in Senate debate as she tried to introduce an amendment to add exceptions for cases of rape and incest.

The Nashville Democrat told her colleagues she is a “sexual assault survivor” of a traumatic experience she suffered in high school, one that led to years of anguish.

Under the current and pending laws, she would’ve been forced to carry that child to term, she said.

“This amendment tells us we’re going to stand on the side of women, not on the side of criminals,” she said.

But it failed too, as did an effort by Sen. Raumesh Akbari to protect children who are raped from being forced to give birth.

Briggs, a Knoxville Republican, acknowledged that the bill wasn’t perfect. He sought to give physicians the ability to make decisions about women’s care without fear of prosecution.

Amid the claims the bill is too narrow to offer women real protection, Briggs pointed out, however, it would not be a criminal offense if the physician uses “reasonable medical judgment” based on the available information to prevent a woman’s death or impairment of a bodily function.

Tennessee Right to Life, despite pushing the initial abortion ban enacted last summer, backed the bill, which is said to have been written by the governor’s office and Senate speaker’s office with the help of the attorney general.

“It’s not everything I would like to have. But it is a necessary bill,” Briggs said. “If you vote against this bill, you’re saying you want the trigger bill to remain the law of the land in Tennessee.”

Lamar, of course, responded that a woman “has to be damn near her deathbed in order for a doctor to save her life.”

The bill, nevertheless, passed 26-1, meaning Republicans support abortions in some cases. It appears to be a case of something is better than nothing. But look for more backtracking sooner than later.

Don’t say “red flag”

For Gov. Bill Lee and Republican leaders, the term “red flag” is a non-starter.

But if someone says it might be wise to keep guns away from mentally unstable people, they tend to lean that way.

Lee gave that idea a luke-warm endorsement this week when he unveiled a $205 million school security plan, which is heavy on school resource officers and homeland security agents and void of gun restrictions.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally appears to be on the same wavelength.

He isn’t fond of the term “red flag,” which in most instances would allow a close family member or police officer to seek a court order to remove guns from the possession of a person considered a risk to themselves or others.

McNally said Thursday, “I wouldn’t say we’d get behind a red flag law, but I think there’s some sentiment at least to explore looking at a law that would provide for an order of protection against people that are having mental problems where they not be able to carry and purchase guns.”

OK, so people with mental problems shouldn’t go packing. Someone finally said it. Now, does anyone have the guts to push it?

The Duck can flow

Drawing strong backing from the people of Maury County, the Legislature passed a bill this week stopping a landfill from encroaching on the Duck River.

Interestingly, it pitted two Republicans against each other in the House where Rep. Chris Todd of Madison County argued that the state would be taking control of a private piece of property and telling the operator what to do.

The mighty Duck: A portion of the Duck River in Coffee County. // John Partipilo

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Scott Cepicky, countered that he couldn’t believe a “fellow” Republican would accuse his constituents of lying. He continued, pointing out the Maury County Commission passed a measure in 2013 prohibiting a landfill within two miles of the Duck River but that when another entity bought the property, it morphed into the current push for a landfill.

“We’re protecting a water source,” Cepicky explained.

The measure passed 79-11.

If anyone wants to see the impact of a landfill on a major water source, all they have to do is drive to the Walter Hill community north of Murfreesboro to see Mount Trashmore in all its glory. It grows larger and more obnoxious every day. Pretty soon, they’ll have to shut down the entire quadrant of northeastern Rutherford County or issue gas masks.

Nearly everybody is happy

The House overwhelmingly passed the governor’s business tax and three-month grocery tax break bill. Grocery shoppers won’t have to pay the state portion of sales tax on groceries in August, September and October. And businesses will have a higher threshold for tax purposes.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons warned that some businesses could wind up facing higher taxes. He also argued that families deserve a year-long tax break, not businesses.

But the vote was overwhelming. Who’s going to pass up cheaper food?

Bypassing the system

The House got stuck on a bill Thursday designed to require transgender athletes to play as their birth certificate identifies when they go to private schools.

The reason: The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bulso, sought an amendment enabling private prek-6 schools to develop firearms policies, he said, as an expedited response to the Covenant shooting.

“This is a major introduction,” Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, said.

Bulso argued that it is designed to keep children safe, saying it “arises out of one of the worst days in our history.”

Democrats were adamant, however, pointing out Republicans constantly stonewall their bills when they try to amend them on the House floor.

From an observer’s perspective, it appears Bulso’s willing to take up any cause that makes sure boys are boys and girls are girls. After all, that is the primary job of our state legislators.

In a moment of lucidity, House Education Administration Chairman Mark White urged Bulso to send the measure back to his committee to make sure it goes through the process. Bulso relented, and lawmakers immediately started to look for pizza.

I’ll have the veggie deluxe, light on jalapenos with pepperoni and a protest on the side.

Where’s Joey Ramone when you need him?

Speaker Sexton caught folks off guard last Friday when he took to conservative radio and TV and called the floor ruckus of the previous day an “insurrection.”

A day later, he clarified his position after people pounded him for calling a bunch of parents and high school kids “insurrectionists” as they rallied for tighter gun laws following The Covenant School shooting.

Instead, Sexton said the only people involved in the revolution were the three lawmakers, Johnson, Pearson and Jones, not the hundreds of young people who swarmed the Capitol.

That would make it an “Insurrection of 3,” which would be a really cool name for a punk rock band.

After sitting through Thursday’s hearings and hearing what people say about the state of Tennessee politics, “I wanna be sedated.”

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state’s best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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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