Expelled to reinstated: Pearson returns to Tennessee House

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – The second of two Black Democrats kicked out of the Republican-led Tennessee House followed his colleague back to work at the Capitol on Thursday, a week after their expulsion for participating in a gun control protest propelled them into the national spotlight.

Rep. Justin Pearson, a lawmaker from Memphis, was sworn in Thursday outside the statehouse. The day before, Shelby County commissioners easily voted to reinstate him.

“Yes indeed, happy resurrection day,” Pearson said Thursday morning, as he signed paperwork for his return.

Before Pearson returned to the House floor, lawmakers cheered and applauded as the police officers who responded to a recent deadly Nashville school shooting – the event that prompted the gun control protest – were honored in the chamber. Democratic Rep. Bob Freeman praised the officers’ bravery, but also stressed to his fellow lawmakers that “inaction is not an option” on how to respond to the tragedy.

Republicans banished Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones last week over their role in the protest on the House floor over the shooting, which left three children and three adults dead.

The Nashville Metropolitan Council took only a few minutes Monday to restore Jones to office. He was quickly reinstated to his House seat that day.

Justin Pearson was easily reappointed to his position by Shelby County commissioners Wednesday, and delivered a speech like a fiery pastor to a throng of jubilant supporters outside.

The appointments are interim, though both Jones and Pearson plan to run in special elections for the seats later this year.

The House’s vote to remove Pearson and Jones but keep white Rep. Gloria Johnson drew accusations of racism. Johnson survived by one vote. Republican leadership denied that race was a factor, noting that Johnson’s role in the protest didn’t involve some steps that Jones and Pearson took, including speaking into a bullhorn.

Banishment is a move the chamber has used only a handful times since the Civil War. Most state legislatures have the power to expel members, but it is generally reserved as a punishment for lawmakers accused of serious misconduct, not used as a weapon against political opponents.

The expulsions last Thursday made Tennessee a new front in the battle for the future of American democracy. In the span of a few days, the two raised thousands of campaign dollars and the Tennessee Democratic Party received a new jolt of support from across the U.S.

Political tensions rose when Pearson, Johnson and Jones, from the House floor, joined with hundreds of demonstrators who packed the Capitol to call for passage of gun control measures.

As protesters filled the 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. Their participation from the front of the chamber broke House rules because the three did not have permission from the House speaker.

In Tennessee, Republican lawmakers have been more supportive of the idea to strengthen school safety than to address gun control with only weeks to go in the legislative session.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee has avoided commenting on the lawmakers’ expulsions, saying the controversy is a House issue. He has since called on the General Assembly to pass legislation aimed at keeping dangerous people from acquiring weapons.

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