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Tennessee Democrats expelled by GOP over protests win back their seats

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Tennessee Democrats expelled by GOP over protests win back their seats

Tennessee State Representatives Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson are seen during a demonstration of linking arms in support of gun control laws sponsored by Voices for a Safer Tennessee at Legislative Plaza on April 18, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee.

The two Democratic state representatives in Tennessee who were expelled by Republicans in April for protesting in support of gun safety on the chamber floor won elections Thursday night for their old seats, The Associated Press projected.

Justin Jones won his election for his state House seat in Nashville, and Justin J. Pearson won his race in Memphis, according to AP projections.

Jones defeated Republican Laura Nelson, while Pearson won his race against independent candidate Jeff Johnston.

Both lawmakers had been reinstated by local government officials shortly after their expulsion in April, but they still had to run for their old seats — both in primary elections in June and in Thursday’s general elections.

While Jones and Pearson were heavily favored to win — each of their districts comprise heavily Democratic areas — their electoral success nevertheless delivered a resounding message to Republicans in the state Legislature that the lawmakers continue to enjoy robust support.

Their return may also provide momentum for Democrats and other lawmakers who support gun measures, ahead of a special legislative session scheduled later this month that Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, called specifically to address gun reform.

The general election victories by Jones and Pearson on Thursday night are the latest developments in an ongoing and chaotic saga within the Tennessee state government.

Following the mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville in March — which left six people dead, including three 9-year-olds — Jones, Pearson and another state House lawmaker led supporters in a protest on the chamber floor that called for stricter gun safety measures.

A bullhorn was used, in violation of rules for the House chamber, and the legislators were gathered in an area on the House floor without being recognized to speak. House leaders at the time called their actions “an insurrection.”

Republican state House legislators then took the exceptionally rare step of voting to expel Jones and Pearson, who are both Black, over their role in the protests. But the vote to expel a third Democrat who was involved in the protest — Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white — fell short, leading to accusations of racism.

The ordeal drew national attention to racial dynamics in the Tennessee Legislature and elevated the national profile of the “Tennessee Three.”

Jones and Pearson have shared that their expulsions led to fundraising windfalls for both of them, while Johnson is expected to challenge U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., in 2024.

In the weeks following their expulsions, Democrats in Washington rallied around the lawmakers. Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Nashville after the expulsions, praising them for “channeling” their constituents’ voices in speaking out against gun violence, while President Joe Biden invited them to visit the White House.

Both expelled lawmakers, however, were quickly reinstated to their seats by local government officials, leaving Republicans with little to show aside from the bad publicity.

The Nashville Metropolitan Council voted to return Jones to the state Legislature, and members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved reinstating Pearson at a special meeting in Memphis.

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