Two Tennessee state lawmakers, who garnered national recognition after protesting on the House floor in a push for gun control and subsequently being expelled from the legislature, are looking to reclaim their seats on Thursday.
Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, two young Black lawmakers who used bullhorns when gun control protesters flooded the legislative chamber, have to succeed in a special election to fully rejoin the House, after previously being reinstated by local officials on an interim basis.
President Biden dubbed the pair part of the “Tennessee Three” trio of lawmakers who advocated for gun control in the wake of the Nashville school shooting carried out by a transgender activist. The White House had condemned their expulsion as an “undemocratic” effort to “punish, silence, and expel duly elected representatives.”
The third of the “Tennessee Three,” state Rep. Gloria Johnson, who also participated in the protest, narrowly escaped expulsion, which she argued was because she is White. State House Republicans have vehemently denied race played a factor during the hearings.
Both Pearson and Jones easily cleared their primary election in June, and now face general election opponents in districts that heavily favor Democrats. Jones, who lives in Nashville, is up against Republican candidate Laura Nelson. Pearson, from Memphis, faces independent candidate Jeff Johnston.
“Let’s send a clear message to everyone who thought they could silence the voice of District 86,” Pearson tweeted earlier this month. “You can’t expel a movement!”
Jones and Pearson were elected to the GOP-dominated Statehouse last year. Both lawmakers flew relatively under the radar, even as they criticized their GOP colleagues’ policies. It wasn’t until this spring that their political careers received a boost when they joined Johnson in a protest for more gun control on the House floor following the shooting at The Covenant School.
Authorities say Audrey Hale, a 28-year-old transgender activist and former student, used two semi-automatic rifles and a handgun to kill three 9-year-olds and three adults inside the private Christian school in Nashville on March 27. Hale was shot and killed by responding officers within minutes of their arrival at the campus.
Yet more than four months after the bloodshed, little has been confirmed of the motive. Republican presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy was in Nashville Wednesday to urge Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Nashville police and the FBI to release the shooter’s manifesto.
The expulsions came after an April protest, when thousands of demonstrators flooded the Capitol building to demand that the Republican supermajority enact some sort of restrictions on firearms. Pearson, Jones and Johnson approached the front of the House chamber and joined the protesters’ chants and cries for action. Republican lawmakers quickly declared that their actions violated House rules and moved to expel their three colleagues – an extraordinary move that’s been taken only a handful of times since the Civil War.
The expulsions drew national support for the newly dubbed “Tennessee Three,” especially for Pearson and Jones’ campaign fundraising.
The two raised more than $2 million combined through about 70,400 campaign donations from across the country. The amount is well beyond the norm for Tennessee’s Republican legislative leaders and virtually unheard of for two freshman Democrats in a superminority.
Meanwhile, more than 15 Republican lawmakers have funneled cash to fund campaign efforts of Jones’ Republican opponent, Laura Nelson. Nelson has raised more than $34,000 for the race. Pearson’s opponent, Jeff Johnston, has raised less than $400 for the contest.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.