The Shelby County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to return expelled Tennessee Democratic Rep. Justin Pearson back to the state House on Wednesday, with a 7-0 vote.
“The message for all the people in Nashville who decided to expel us: You can’t expel hope! You can’t expel justice! You can’t expel our voice! And you sure can’t expel our fight! We look forward to continuing to fight, ” Pearson said after the vote. “Continuing to advocate. Until justice rolls down like water. And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Let’s get back to work.”
The crowd in the meeting room, made up of demonstrators who showed up in support of Pearson, cheered on loudly as the reinstated lawmaker spoke.
Only seven of the the 13-seat board were present to vote. Democrats hold a 9-4 majority but Commissioner Britney Thornton of District 10 and Commissioner Michael Whaley of District 13 were out of the country and could not attend the vote, according to local NBC affiliate Action 5 News. And the four Republicans on the board did not participate in the vote.
Several groups — including the Shelby County Democratic Party, Shelby County Young Democrats, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee, Black Lifestyle Advocates for Culture and Knowledge and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition — held a community rally in support of Pearson ahead of the Wednesday vote.
Hundreds of protestors, chanting and singing, walked from the National Civil Rights Museum to the Shelby County Commision building.
“Although the Tennessee GOP attempted to silence an outspoken voice, today the people of Shelby County and District 86 showed the legislature who’s truly in power, the people,” Amber Sherman, Shelby County Young Democrats President, told TPM. “We have shown we won’t be silenced by the gun lobby, the GOP, or white supremacy. The Tennessee GOP tried and they failed miserably.”
Pearson’s reappointment comes just two days after the Nashville Metro Council unanimously voted to return his colleague, fellow Democratic Rep. Justin Jones, back to the state House on Monday, with a 36–0 vote.
With the two lawmakers’ return to the House, state House Republicans’ short-term effort to kick the two young, Black, progressive Democrats out of the House chamber has failed.
But Republicans’ efforts to keep the two members out of office does not come without a cost. Tennessee law indicates Pearson and Jones’ appointments will function as interim House assignments to fill the seats of expelled lawmakers, even though those expelled members are … themselves. A special election will be held to fill Pearson and Jones’ seats permanently. Both are eligible to run for reelection but they will once again need to win an election to formally return to their seats for the rest of their two-year term. The timing of their potential special elections is unclear.
Pearson and Jones were expelled by the Republican-led House last week for participating in a peaceful gun protest from the floor of the chamber. The protest came in the wake of the Nashville school shooting that left six people — three children and three school personnel — dead.
During the Thursday protest, Jones, Pearson and Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville — an older white woman, who survived the GOP-led attempt to oust the trio — joined a group of demonstrators who packed the Capitol building and the House gallery and chanted, calling for gun restrictions. Jones, Johnson and Pearson cheered on the protestors from the front of the House chamber with a bullhorn.
In response, state Republicans claimed the lawmakers in question “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions” and voted to oust Jones and Pearson. But Johnson survived the vote after some claimed she was calmer than the two Black members and didn’t use the bullhorn. The selective expulsions have been criticized by Democrats all over the country as a racist punitive action against two young, progressive Black men.
Critics also emphasized that Republicans subverted the will of thousands of voters who elected the lawmakers in the last election by ousting the members over a minor rule-breaking offense.
“None of this is easy, especially in a state so heavily gerrymandered and so anti-democratic as Tennessee, but our ancestors faced worse and they prevailed,” Pearson said in a statement shared with TPM following his reinstatement. “So will we, as long as we stay in the streets, in the halls of power and in the front of the chamber–together.”