It simply seems that Tennessee Republicans cannot escape the national news. The most recent legislative session, which concluded a few short weeks ago, was a consistent stream of controversy stemming from the supermajority. While the elected Republicans regularly found the limelight for all the wrong reasons, bringing expulsion charges against three Democratic colleagues catapulted their peers to national prominence. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson, collectively known as the Tennessee Three, have gone from minority members to famous fundraising powerhouses. When the expulsion charges were brought against the three legislators, Tennessee Republicans embarked on a mission that lacked foresight, ignored the concerns of Tennesseans, and failed to meet the standard set by their predecessors.
By occupying the floor for roughly 45 minutes in a protest to push their fellow lawmakers to address gun reform, the three Democratic legislators started a movement that led everyday Tennesseans to protest for the remainder of the session. On the heels of the Covenant School shooting, three Democratic lawmakers joined thousands of Tennesseans in calling for legislation, such as improved red-flag laws. The peaceful yet raucous protesting was cause for the Republican supermajority to hurriedly finish the legislative session and return to their home districts. While the session may have ended, the Tennessee Three were propelled to political stardom.
All three have now visited the White House and spoken with President Biden and Vice President Harris. A trip to New York City and a national interview with Good Morning America also happened. Top politicians, such as former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were quick to meet and get a picture with Jones as he visited Capitol Hill to ask lawmakers to enhance gun safety measures. The expulsions surely pumped money to all three and financially strengthened the Tennessee Democratic Party.
I cannot help thinking that the Tennessee Republicans played this situation in the most inept way possible. They bring expulsion charges against three members, two of whom are young African-Americans. In truth, Speaker Cameron Sexton and his Republican colleagues made this move to eliminate three of the louder Democratic voices from the chamber. He was unsuccessful in Gloria Johnson’s case, but he managed to remove two young black men, Jones and Pearson, from the Capitol. The actions from Sexton appear alarming, but the optics are worse.
By removing these two from their elected positions, Tennessee Republicans have made national news for their questionable decision-making and perceived racism. Removing two people of color from the chamber for something as mundane as breaking decorum has raised the ire of people across the country. It paints our legislature as a trivial and chaotic body that punishes certain people for rather insignificant offenses. Speaker Sexton has placed himself and his Republican friends in a precarious situation moving forward.
Not to mention that all the theatrics were for not. Both expelled legislators were reappointed to their respective seats within a few days. Moreover, expelling these gentlemen triggered special elections, and the cost for these is somewhere in the range of half a million dollars. Essentially, taxpayers are saddled with the bill to send the same individuals back to their current seats.
Tennessee has a tradition of leaders in both parties having respect and solid relationships with their political rivals. Think of Ronald Reagan, Tip O’Neill, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush. The Volunteer State has often supported congenial candidates focusing more on building consensus than sharpening divides. Electorally, Tennessee has a rich history of supporting people from both sides of the political aisle. From Howard Baker and Fred Thompson to Al Gore and Phil Bredesen, we’ve selected fair-minded Tennesseans to represent us.
Unfortunately, the actions of the current-day Tennessee Republicans do not necessarily connect with their GOP forefathers. Both parties have numerous mishaps and indiscretions, but this does not lead to immediate expulsion. In the case of the Tennessee Three, a lack of decorum was unprecedentedly cited as the reason, which ultimately cost Tennesseans and emboldened Democrats.
When the Tennessee legislature reconvenes to address the people’s business, they’ll face the same three Democrats they attempted to expel. Speaker Sexton and Republicans misplayed their hand and provided a much-needed jolt of energy to not only Tennessee Democrats, but every American yearning for a solution to the constant gun violence troubling our country. Each week, we are forced to endure more mass shootings by deranged individuals with easy access to weapons. The recent events in Texas emphasize the importance of strong voices, such as the Tennessee Three, and their willingness to address the violence plaguing our country. Americans are motivated and want to see an element of change. And oddly enough, this movement was brought about by a Republican supermajority that attempted to silence elected officials.
Seth J. Campbell
Seth J. Campbell is from Columbia, Tennessee and is a high school educator. He is a weekly columnist for Main Street Media of Tennessee. He also runs Hound Dog Holler Animal Rescue, which focuses on helping at-risk dogs throughout rural Tennessee. He has degrees from the University of Tennessee and Trevecca Nazarene University.