The Nashville Metropolitan Council is expected to meet Monday to consider the vacancy in the Tennessee state Legislature after two young black lawmakers were ousted last week in votes that drew national attention to racial dynamics in the highest legislative body of the state.
Democrats Justin Jones, Justin J. Pearson, and Gloria Johnson had targeted supporters in chants calling for gun control measures after a shooting at a Nashville school killed six people, including three 9-year-old children. The three of them broke house rules and used a megaphone when not recognized to speak. Leaders of the Tennessee House of Representatives called the protest an «insurrection» and voted last Thursday to expel Jones and Pearson from the Legislature. Johnson, who is white, survived her vote, which she suggested she had to do with her race.
Last week, 23 members of the 40-seat Metropolitan Council, a majority, said they would vote to send Jones back to the Legislature. Deputy Mayor Jim Shulman told NBC News that he hopes the council will consider suspending the rules to allow a vote on a successor to fill Jones’s seat on meeting today at 5:30 pm ET instead of holding a one-month nomination period.
“He is a duly chosen representative of his constituents. They voted for it. They chose it. They want me to speak for them,” said councilor Zulfat Suara. “We cannot stop the voices of the masses or what the voters wanted, that would not be good for our democracy. what the state did [Thursday] is that: kill democracy.
The Shelby County Board of County Commissioners, the body tasked with choosing Pearson’s successor, will meet Wednesday to consider action to reappoint Pearson to his post, Chairman Mickell Lowery announced Sunday.
“I believe the removal of State Representative Justin Pearson was carried out in a hasty manner without considering other methods of corrective action,” Lowery said in a statement. «I also believe that the ramifications of our great state remain to be seen.»
In interviews since their ouster, Jones and Pearson said they have felt tensions among their fellow lawmakers since they started in the majority-white Legislature. Jones said he and Pearson had a «target» since they joined the Legislature because of their race, age and activist background.
Pearson added: “When you have people making comments about hanging yourself from a tree and hanging black people from a tree as a form of capital punishment, when you wear a dashiki on the floor of the House and a member stands up and talks about your dashiki saying it’s unprofessional, they’re really sending signals that you don’t belong here.»
Democrats in Washington have rallied with Jones and Pearson since their ouster. Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Nashville on Friday to meet with the «Tennessee Three,» as the group has been called, praising them for «channeling» the voices of their constituents to denounce gun violence. President Joe Biden also called lawmakers and invited them to visit the White House. He called his ouster «shocking, undemocratic and unprecedented.»
Black Nashville residents expressed outrage over the removal of the two lawmakers, saying it silenced their voices. “It’s like our vote doesn’t matter,” a resident told NBC News.
Expulsion from the Legislature has been a rare punishment reserved for the most serious crimes, with only a few cases occurring in recent decades. Unlike those cases, Jones and Pearson were not charged or convicted of breaking the law.
Under state rules, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, must schedule a primary for the Jones and Pearson seats within 60 days and a general election within 107 days.