NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — One of the two Black Democrats who were thrown out of the Tennessee House last week appeared likely to get his seat back Monday, just days after the GOP exacted retribution against the lawmakers who protested for more gun control.
Nashville's Metro Council could return Justin Jones to the Legislature immediately when it votes to fill the vacant position on an interim basis.
The other expelled representative, Justin Pearson, could be reappointed Wednesday at a meeting of the Shelby County Commission in his district.
The expulsions on Thursday made Tennessee a new front in the battle for the future of American democracy and propelled the ousted lawmakers into the national spotlight.
Members of the Nashville council have said publicly that they want to send Jones back to the Capitol. The vote will happen as state lawmakers hold their first floor sessions since the expulsion votes.
Special elections for the seats will take place in the coming months. Jones and Pearson have said they want to be reappointed and plan to run in the special elections.
Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton's spokesperson, Doug Kufner, indicated that whoever is appointed to the vacancies by the Nashville and Shelby County governments “will be seated as representatives as the constitution requires.”
Jones and Pearson quickly drew prominent supporters. President Joe Biden spoke with them, and Vice President Kamala Harris visited them in Nashville. The expelled lawmakers have filled out their legal teams. Eric Holder, who served as attorney general under former President Barack Obama, now represents Jones.
“The world is watching Tennessee," attorneys for Jones and Pearson wrote to Sexton in a letter Monday. "Any partisan retributive action, such as the discriminatory treatment of elected officials, or threats or actions to withhold funding for government programs, would constitute further unconstitutional action that would require redress.”
A third Democrat targeted for expulsion, Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, also attracted national attention.
Political tensions rose when the three joined with hundreds of demonstrators who packed the Capitol last month to call for passage of gun-control measures.
As protesters filled galleries, the lawmakers approached the front of the House chamber with a bullhorn and participated in a chant. The scene unfolded days after the shooting at the Covenant School, a private Christian school where six people were killed, including three children.
Johnson, who is white, was spared expulsion by a single vote. Republican lawmakers justified splitting their votes by saying Johnson had less of a role in the protest — she didn’t speak into the megaphone, for example.
Johnson also suggested race was likely a factor in why Jones and Pearson were ousted but not her. She told reporters it “might have to do with the color of our skin.”
GOP leaders have said the expulsions — a mechanism used only a handful times since the Civil War — had nothing to do with race and instead were necessary to avoid setting a precedent that lawmakers’ disruptions of House proceedings through protest would be tolerated.
Expulsion has generally been reserved as a punishment for lawmakers accused of serious misconduct, not used as a weapon against political opponents.