Less than a week after being expelled, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners has reappointed Justin J. Pearson to his seat representing Tennessee House District 86.
Shelby County is home to Memphis, the area Pearson represents. Wednesday, in a 7-0 vote, the board decided to reinstate Pearson while six of the 13 members, including Republicans, were absent from the meeting.
While talking with reporters after the vote, Pearson says he will head to the Capitol in Nashville Wednesday night to be in place for Thursday’s House session.
Chairman Mickell M. Lowery of the commission, who put forth the resolution to reinstate Pearson, said he had heard from people across the country who disagree with the expulsion.
Rep. Justin Pearson is again a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives after the Memphis Democrat took the oath of office on Thursday, just steps away from the state Capitol building he was expelled from last week in an historic, controversial process that has roiled political waters and elevated the freshman lawmaker to a national platform.
Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, were expelled by Tennessee Republicans last week for interrupting House business amid gun reform protests at the Capitol on March 30, just days after the deadly Covenant school shooting rocked Nashville and the nation. Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, survived an expulsion effort by a single vote.
Pearson on Thursday read off the names of the Covenant shooting victims before criticizing the Republican supermajority for taking up expulsion proceedings amid historic public protests at the Capitol calling for gun reform.
Expulsions put a spotlight on race in Tennessee
Pearson’s reinstatement is the latest twist in a political battle that ignited accusations of racism and toxic partisanship: Republican House members, largely white and male, employed a disciplinary tool little used since the 1800s to expel Pearson and another Black Democrat, Rep. Justin Jones, while sparing Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white.
The Republican supermajority voted to punish Pearson and Jones, of Nashville, after they — alongside Johnson of Knoxville — broke procedural rules to lead a protest from the House floor calling for gun law reforms.
When asked about the differing outcomes, Johnson replied, “It might have to do with the color of our skin.”
Commission leader says expulsion was hasty
As he announced Wednesday’s special meeting, Lowery said he understood the Republican leadership’s desire to send “a strong message” to Pearson and Jones. But he also said it was a hasty process that brought an “unfortunate” outcome.
“Kids are told to go to fortresses, instead of to go to school and places of learning. We’re told to go to church, carrying the status quo’s thoughts and prayers, while we must be in fear that somebody will walk in with an assault weapon.”
The Nashville metropolitan council took only a few minutes on Monday to restore Jones to office. He was quickly reinstated to his house seat that day.
The appointments are interim, though 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 their white colleague Gloria Johnson, who also took part in the protest, drew accusations of racism.
Banishment is a move the chamber has used only a handful of times since the civil war. The so-called Tennessee Three – participating from the front of the chamber – broke house rules because they did not have permission from the speaker.
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 jolt of support from across the US.
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