Tennessee lawmaker returns to House after expulsion over gun protest

Tennessee lawmaker returns to House after expulsion over gun protest

By Sandra Stojanovic and Omar Younis

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) -Tennessee state Representative Justin Jones returned to the state House on Monday, pumping his fist and declaring "power to the people" as a Nashville-area council restored him to office following his expulsion over a gun protest.

Republican lawmakers ousted Jones and another young, Black legislator last week over their gun control protest on the House floor, capturing national attention with Democrats seeking to advance gun violence prevention and racial equality while Republicans wielded their supermajority power.

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 on Monday to make Jones, 27, the interim representative. He had been elected to Tennessee's House of Representatives last year.

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.

Unlike the other two, Gloria Johnson, the white representative, did not use a megaphone. The vote to expel her came up one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed, prompting criticisms that race was a factor.

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 three were protesting the legislature's stance on guns in the wake of the March 27 shooting at a Nashville school that killed three 9-year-old students and three staff members.

The Covenant School shooting was one of 146 mass shootings in the United States this year, the highest number to date of any year since 2016, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as four or more people shot or killed, excluding the shooter.

In yet another shooting on Monday, four people were killed by one of their coworkers at a bank in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Metro Council vote set off a celebration among some 600 protesters gathered outside, as people greeted Jones with cheers of "Welcome home!"

Jones then marched with Johnson back to the statehouse, carrying his nameplate, and was sworn in on the steps, surrounded by supporters.

He took his place while the House was in session, holding up a fist while supporters cheered from the gallery.

"I want to welcome the people back to the people's house," Jones said upon being reseated.

Addressing supporters before the vote, Jones accused 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."

Council Member Delishia Porterfield, who lost to Jones in the 2022 primary for the statehouse seat, nominated him for reinstatement, saying their vote would "send a strong message to our state government and across the country."

A spokesperson for House Speaker Cameron Sexton did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Before the vote, the spokesperson said the House would seat whomever the county legislatures appoint "as the constitution requires."

Jones and Pearson, 28, have both said they would run again in special elections.

Although Republicans control the state legislature, Memphis and Nashville are heavily Democratic. Voters in Davidson and Shelby counties voted overwhelmingly for Democrat Joe Biden over Republican Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential race.

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 hold large majorities in many of the state houses where issues such as abortion and gun control are often decided.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta, Gabriella Borter and Rich McKay; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Donna Bryson, Aurora Ellis, Jonathan Oatis, Lisa Shumaker, Leslie Adler and Kim Coghill)