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Long-brewing tensions at the Tennessee Capitol burst into public view Monday, as Republican House members began the process of ousting three of their Democratic colleagues for participating in an anti-gun protest in the chamber last week.
Republicans in Tennessee are on the cusp of ousting three Democrats from the state House of Representatives, in retaliation for the lawmakers leading a protest on the chamber floor.
The potential expulsion of Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson for their outburst in favor of gun control legislation last week would be virtually unprecedented. Only two Tennessee lawmakers have been removed since the end of the Civil War, despite legislators being the subject of at least two FBI probes in the past 20 years and one lawmaker recently being accused of child abuse.
Republicans, who have supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature, potentially have enough votes to remove the three Democrats on Thursday. But doing so would underscore what a dramatic shift in politics has occurred in Tennessee in the last decade, as the fast-growing state went from moderate to one of the most conservative governments in the country.
Emboldened Republican officials have put Tennessee at the forefront of social debates by banning drag shows, passing a transgender bathroom ban, policing schools’ instruction on racial equity and expanding gun rights. Meanwhile, they’ve curtailed the powers of local governments, particularly in the Nashville area where they’ve slashed the size of the city council, threatened a takeover of the city’s airport and tried to eliminate funding for its convention center.
A pair of Republican lawmakers even tried, unsuccessfully, to rename a thoroughfare that passes by the Capitol, which was recently changed to honor the late civil rights leader John Lewis. In his youth, Lewis led protests that desegregated Nashville lunch counters. The GOP legislators wanted to call a stretch of that road “President Donald Trump Boulevard” instead.
The parade of conservative initiatives has sparked protests at the Capitol, particularly after a school shooting at The Covenant School in the Nashville area last week that killed six people, including three children. It was during one of those demonstrations that the three Democratic lawmakers grew upset that Republican leaders wouldn’t allow them to discuss gun control on the floor and cut off their mics. So the three addressed their colleagues at the dais and the protesters in the galleries with a megaphone, which set off the current crisis.
Democratic leaders said their members were making “good trouble,” the phrase Lewis often invoked when he broke rules to protest causes. Lewis, in fact, led a 2016 sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House, where he was a member, to protest Congress’ inaction on gun control.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre criticized Tennessee Republicans Tuesday for "play[ing] politics" in the face of protests with thousands of children calling for gun law changes.
"What we’re seeing from Florida to Tennessee in the United States is Republican officials who are doubling down on dangerous bills that make our schools and places of worship and communities less safe," she said. "By doing what they’re doing with these three Democratic legislators, they’re shrugging in the face of yet another tragic school shooting while our kids continue to pay the price."
But Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton accused the three Democrats of “insurrection,” alluding to the storming of the U.S. Capitol in 2021. The Democrats deny that characterization.
Tennessee Republicans determined that the three lawmakers should face consequences for “knowingly and intentionally bring[ing] disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives.” They stripped the violators of their committee assignments, deactivated their member security cards and moved to eject them from the legislature.
“There’s a dilemma for many Tennessee citizens when it comes to public policy. The state legislature has a supermajority and appears to have almost no concern about being reelected in any pocket of the state,” said Ken Paulson, the director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University. “We’re in a state where the traditional checks and balances of democracy don’t exist. It is absolutely a conservative state.”
“Time and again, those who disagree with legislators’ policy are marching and protesting to no avail,” continued Paulson, a former editor-in-chief of USA Today. “I can’t think of anything of significance that’s been turned around because of the voices of citizens in the state of Tennessee. To those voters, it feels as though they have no voice and if they had a voice, no one would be listening. That’s what causes tension in the statehouse.”
A Rightward Shift
As a Southern state, Tennessee has long had a conservative streak. Voters elevated moderates like Democrat Phil Bredesen to governor and Republican Lamar Alexander to both governor and U.S. senator. But Republicans took control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time in 2009 and assumed complete control of state government when Bill Haslam succeeded Bredesen as governor in 2011.
Tennessee really emerged as a conservative trailblazer when Bill Lee, a businessman with no prior government experience, took over eight years later. By that time, Trump had energized conservatives around the country. Backlash to Covid-19 mitigation measures, such as mask mandates and immunization requirements, further intensified the right-leaning fervor.
In the state Capitol, Tennessee Republicans were among the first in the country to pass restrictions on teaching about systemic racism, in a backlash to so-called critical race theory. It did it in the final two days of the 2021 session, without taking testimony from teachers or students. Lawmakers are currently considering further restrictions for college campuses, which would limit the schools’ ability to block guest speakers and require them to publish syllabuses, course materials and final grades for every class.
They also curtailed rights for LGBTQ+ people, with the Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy group, decrying four bills in 2021 that targeted gay, lesbian and transgender people as the “slate of hate.” Tennessee became the first state after North Carolina to pass a transgender bathroom bill, although a federal judge later struck it down. More recently, Tennessee lawmakers banned gender-affirming treatments for youth in February and made the state the first to ban drag shows.
“This intolerance is everywhere,” said Paulson. “But I would say that we're seeing a particularly high level of this kind of legislation in Florida, Tennessee and Texas. They’re the gold, silver and bronze in the intolerance Olympics.”
In Tennessee, GOP lawmakers have been especially aggressive in taking control away from local officials. In addition to cutting the size of the Nashville Metro Council in half and seeking to take over the Nashville airport, the legislature investigated the city’s elected prosecutor and explored the idea of eliminating runoff elections for mayor. The moves are widely seen as retaliation for Nashville taking itself out of the running for hosting the Republican National Convention.
On guns, the Republican majorities have weakened regulations and made it possible for most people to carry concealed firearms without training or registration, a move opposed by the state sheriffs association.
Governor Spars with Biden
Gov. Bill Lee has also pushed the government to the right.
On education, he promoted the idea of introducing 50 charter schools associated with Hillsdale College, a private Michigan school with ties to Trump that pushes a skewed history curriculum that advances patriotism and minimizes racial inequities. The governor was on stage with the president of the college when he said education “destroys generations of people” and that “teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”
Lee has sparred with President Joe Biden on a variety of topics. When Biden said in 2021 that governors shouldn’t threaten school officials that imposed mask requirements, Lee pounced. “A lot of cynical and divisive edicts came out of the White House today pitting the vaccinated against the unvaccinated, businesses against employees, and the federal government against states,” Lee wrote on Twitter.
Lee also spearheaded groups of Republican governors that chided Biden for pushing a “social agenda” with the 2021 infrastructure law and for not acting quickly enough to resolve supply chain disruptions.
“People there around him view him as a potential vice-presidential nominee, so he takes on big issues that I think he feels will play at the national level. And I think that’s part of the issue,” said JC Bowman, the executive director and CEO of the Professional Educators of Tennessee. “He came in there with a Donald Trump model, and he takes a real hands-off approach to policy.”
That leaves the door open to Republican state lawmakers who often use a “cut-and-paste mentality” for introducing bills that they think will play well with their voters, Bowman said.
Lawmakers have also been trying to minimize the amount of time they spend in session, leading to policies that often don’t get vetted by experts and interest groups, he said.
John Vile, a political science professor who studies constitutional law at Middle Tennessee State University, said he’s troubled by the Republicans moving to oust the three Democrats for their role in the gun protests. Americans have long preferred that voters determine whether their lawmakers are doing a good job representing them. “If they’re dissatisfied with their behavior,” he said, “then let them decide not to reelect them..
“This is the result of one-party government. I’m not saying it’s Republicans, because the same thing would probably happen if Democrats were in control,” Vile said. “But when you’re just punishing those three members, you’re punishing their constituents. You’re essentially saying, until somebody else is there to replace them, you’re not going to be represented in this body.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.