By Cheney Orr and Brad Brooks
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) -Republicans in control of the Tennessee House of Representatives expelled two Democratic representatives on Thursday for breaking decorum during a gun control demonstration at the statehouse last week in the wake of the latest school shooting.
In an extraordinary measure, when lesser forms of discipline including censure were available, the Republican supermajority voted to remove Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two young Black legislators.
The resolution to oust a third Democratic member who stood with them during the protest on the House floor, Gloria Johnson, a white woman, came up one vote short.
That protest came four days after a Nashville school shooting killed three 9-year-old children and three school staff members.
Republican Representatives Andrew Farmer, Gino Bulso, and Bud Hulsey had filed the three resolutions on Monday to expel their Democratic colleagues, saying they broke decorum by leading the demonstration in the well of the House floor.
The House voted 72-25 along party lines to remove Jones and 69-26 to remove Pearson. But Johnson was spared when the vote to expel her came up 65-30. The Republicans control the chamber 75-23 and needed 66 votes for expulsion.
Johnson may have been spared because unlike Jones and Pearson she did not use a megaphone to lead chants during last Thursday’s protest, when hundreds of demonstrators flooded into the statehouse.
But race came up several times during the often tense debate.
“You cannot ignore the racial dynamic of what happened today. Two young Black lawmakers get expelled and the one white woman does not. That’s a statement in and of itself,” Pearson told reporters after the vote.
President Joe Biden decried the proceedings, tweeting that they were “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.”
Only two Tennessee state representatives have been expelled by their colleagues since the Civil War era: one in 1980 for soliciting a bribe in exchange for blocking legislation and another in 2016 after being accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women. Both expulsions were made with overwhelming, bipartisan votes.
The Democratic Party in Tennessee said it was raising funds to support special elections for any of those expelled.
The three Democratic lawmakers led protesters on the House floor to demand stricter gun laws. Republicans in the resolutions calling for their expulsion accused the three of engaging in “disorderly behavior” and said they “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions.”
Hundreds of protesters gathered again outside the state house in the rain on Thursday and packed the gallery above the House floor, holding signs in favor of stricter gun control.
They broke out into cheers when Johnson was spared expulsion, then chanted “shame on you” and “no justice, no peace” after Pearson was kicked out.
Johnson, Jones and Pearson have said that taking part in the protest was within their First Amendment rights – the constitutional right to freedom of speech. They, along with other Democratic members, also said Thursday that Republican leaders have used their super majority to squelch speech in the chamber, and Johnson said that was one of the reasons they acted as they did last week.
Before being ousted, Jones had decried the proceedings.
“What we see here today is a lynch mob assembled not to lynch me but our democratic process,” Jones said.
“At no point was there violence,” Jones added, referring to the demonstration he and his colleagues led on the chamber floor last week. “At no point did we encourage violence. In fact what we were doing was calling for the end of gun violence that is terrorizing our children day after day after day.”
But Bulso, a Republican who authored one of the expulsion resolutions, said it was clear to him that Jones “wants to be expelled.”
“He and two other representatives effectively conducted a mutiny,” Bulso said. “Not to expel him would simply invite him and his colleagues to continue to engage in mutiny on the House floor.”
(Reporting by Cheney Orr in Nashville and Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Donna Bryson, Mark Porter, Diane Craft and Lincoln Feast.)