Local city councils reappointed expelled Democrat Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson back to the state Capitol days after Republicans removed them, but undemocratic gerrymandered supermajorities in the Tennessee House will continue to be a problem for Jones’ supporters, as well as other Black and brown voters.
Voters watched GOP members use their supermajority to toss 27-year-old community organizer Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and 27-year-old Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, last week. After the GOP ousted the legislature’s two youngest, newest representatives, the GOP couldn’t wait to scrub the website of their presence.
All but one GOP member moved to expel two Democratic lawmakers, after they interrupted legislative votes earlier this month to join protesters demanding gun-control legislation, after yet another mass killing, this time at a Nashville school in Jones’ city.
Unlike Republican voters’ attack at the January 6 incident on the U.S. Capitol, there was no violence or vandalism at the Tennessee assembly building. Still Republican lawmakers were eager to flex their retaliatory muscle. Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, who wrote the decision expelling Jones, was jubilant in his contempt.
“That’s why you’re standing here today because of that temper tantrum that day, for that yearning to have attention,” Farmer told Rep. Pearson on the House floor. “That’s what you wanted. You’re getting it now.”
Pearson was unapologetic in his reply. “You all heard that. How many of you would want to be spoken to that way? … The reason I believe the sponsor of this legislation, this resolution spoke that way was because he’s comfortable doing it. Because there’s a decorum that allows it. There’s a decorum that allows you to belittle people.”
Pearson reminded the floor that protestors demanding gun control in the wake of another horrendous mass shooting “didn’t belittle” anybody when they demanded action in the chamber earlier that month.
Commenters said Farmer’s tone suggested he was “inches away” from calling Pearson “boy.”
Legislators failed to remove a third representative joining gun control protestors in the chamber. Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knox County, survived the vote, and attributed her survival to her race.
“It might have to do with the color of our skin,” said Johnson, who is white.
Reaction across the nation was immediate.
“This is fascism,” warned U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan. “Expelling your political opponents for demanding action on gun violence when children are dying is disgusting.”
But the Republican legislature has been using undemocratic gerrymandering to seal themselves a supermajority and wipe Democratic representatives from the map since the 1990s. They used particularly scurrilous redistricting to crack the state’s majority-blue city of Nashville into three separate congressional districts, watering down the city’s voting power and cramming Democratic voters into rural districts where Republican voters outnumber them. This erased one Nashville congressional seat that had been comfortably Democratic for decades.
Democrat Jim Cooper had held the 5th Congressional District for almost two decades but announced his retirement when it became clear the GOP had ransacked his district of voters. Prior to that, Joe Biden had carried the district by more than 20 points in 2020.
“Despite my strength at the polls, I could not stop the general assembly from dismembering Nashville. No one tried harder to keep our city whole,” Cooper said in a statement. “I explored every possible way, including lawsuits, to stop the gerrymandering and to win one of the three new congressional districts that now divide Nashville. There’s no way, at least for me in this election cycle, but there may be a path for other worthy candidates.”
The new maps give the Republican congressional delegation an 8-to-1 majority, but the obscene reshuffle so mangled districts that the state’s election committees sent many Nashville voters ballots to the wrong district.
Fighting the undemocratic gerrymandering is difficult after several Trump appointees and nomination abuses by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnel, R-Kentucky. The U.S. Supreme Court is now a reliable adjunct of the Republican Party, and it refuses to intervene in Republican-friendly gerrymandering cases, even as it takes an active hand in derailing gerrymandering cases favoring Democrats.
In Wisconsin, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that federal courts don't have the power to decide cases related to partisan gerrymandering, effectively ending a Wisconsin lawsuit against legislative maps drawn by Republicans in 2011. The court ruled 5-4 that "partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.” That same court came back in 2022, however, and issued an unsigned decision throwing out a new Wisconsin legislative map with an additional majority Black district as a “racial gerrymander.” The Supreme Court sided with the Republican-led Wisconsin legislature and ruled the state court was mistaken in its use of race to select a voting map upping the number of majority-Black districts in the Wisconsin State Assembly from six to seven.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined Justice Elena Kagan in dissent, accusing the majority of engaging in an emergency intervention that was “not only extraordinary but also unnecessary.”
Now firmly a Republican body, The U.S. Supreme Court is fine with working with GOP legislatures to shut down Black voices, and Black voters are getting frustrated—particularly, at the Tennessee GOP’s double standard. Legislators did not expel former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada after his chief of staff used cocaine in the statehouse, sent racist texts and tried to doctor an email to frame Rep. Justin Jones in 2019. Neither was he apparently tossed after being indicted for theft and bribery. The GOP legislature also didn’t jump to dump GOP Rep. David Byrd, not even after he was accused of sexually assaulting three teenage girls.
After his reinstatement, Jones said he planned to continue the very fight that derailed him.
“The first thing I’ll do when I walk into this building as a representative is to continue that call for commonsense gun legislation,” Jones told a crowd of supporters from Capitol steps.
He later told CNN news anchors he met Republican Rep. Bud Hulsey on the Capitol elevator.
“Did you learn anything from this experience?” he claimed he asked Hulsey.
Hulsey allegedly ducked responsibility, despite having personally filed the bill expelling Jones. The expulsion, he said, was “part of a leadership decision,” said Jones.
Jones told reporters the elevator was “very quiet” after that.