By Cheney Orr
NASHVILLE (Reuters) -U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris flew to Nashville on Friday in a show of support for Tennessee state lawmakers expelled for staging a rule-breaking demonstration for gun control on the statehouse floor after a recent school shooting.
Republicans who control the Tennessee House of Representatives on Thursday expelled two young Black lawmakers who last week led protesters into the well of the House floor, while a resolution to remove a white representative came up one vote short.
The vice president met with the three targeted lawmakers as national Democrats have used the expulsions as a rallying cry for gun violence prevention and racial equality.
Democrats are also pushing back against the way Republicans have exercised their power in Tennessee and other states where they hold overwhelming majorities in the legislatures.
The Republicans ousted Justin Pearson, 28, of Memphis, and Justin Jones, 27, from the Nashville area. Fellow Representative Gloria Johnson, 60, who joined them in the protest but unlike the other two refrained from using a megaphone, was spared.
They staged the protest for gun reforms following the March 27 shooting at a Nashville school that killed three 9-year-old students and three adults.
“The issue, which gets back to these three, is that we need leaders who have the courage to act at state houses and in Washington, D.C., in the United States Congress,” Harris told a gathering at Fisk University, a historically Black school. “Have the courage to act instead of the cowardice to not allow debate.”
Republicans have generally rejected restricting access to guns, citing the Second Amendment right to possess arms under the U.S. Constitution and saying the focus should be on mental health and more funding to boost school security.
President Joe Biden separately spoke with the “Tennessee Three” and invited them to the White House, praising them for “seeking to ban assault weapons and standing up for our democratic values.”
Like much of the country, Tennessee is grappling with questions of political representation and changing demographics ahead of the 2024 presidential election that could see guns, along with abortion and democracy, as top issues. Memphis and Nashville are two of the former slave state’s most diverse areas.
With a 75-23 advantage over Democrats in the House, Tennessee Republicans took the extraordinary measure to expel their Democratic colleagues, citing their disruption of orderly House business. Just two state lawmakers had previously been expelled since the U.S. Civil War.
Hundreds of protesters converged on the House for the vote, chanting “shame on you” and “no justice, no peace” after the expulsions.
Nearly 50 organizations, led by gun safety advocacy group the Newtown Action Alliance, on Friday called for nationwide student walkouts in solidarity with those in Tennessee.
Harris urged young people to increase their activism on gun violence prevention, following the example of those who joined the original protest last week and returned on Thursday.
“Every generation has its calling,” Harris said. “And so in particular, to all the young leaders here: This issue is going to require your leadership. … We need you.”
Attempts to get Jones and Pearson reinstated are underway.
County legislatures may fill vacancies in the statehouse, at least until special elections are held.
The Nashville area’s metropolitan council called a special session on Monday to possibly select an interim representative. The Tennessean newspaper reported that at least 29 members of the 40-seat council planned to vote to reinstate Jones. It was not immediately clear when Pearson’s seat would be filled, although that county’s commission has a Wednesday meeting scheduled.
Jones, in an interview on MSNBC on Friday, said it was unclear whether Republicans would block the two from rejoining the legislature if they were reappointed.
(Additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, Daniel Trotta and Katharine Jackson; Writing by Susan Heavey and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Caitlin Webber, Diane Craft, David Gregorio, Bill Berkrot and William Mallard)