The Republican Party had nothing to gain by voting to expel two Democratic state reps (Justin Jones and Justin Pearson), and just barely deciding not to expel a third (Gloria Johnson).
The expulsions were about the dumbest thing the Republicans could have done, and they did it about as badly as possible.
Remember, democratic politics works when most people believe their beliefs can be represented, and might ultimately convince a majority and carry the day. Political losers accept defeats because they can imagine that they might one day be victors. Political winners have a strong interest in nurturing their opponents’ dream of influence through mainstream politics.
The Republican Party enjoyed a massive majority, 75-24, in the state house, partly a result of political preference, but also a reflection of residential sorting and aggressive gerrymandering. They could pass anything they wanted, while the Democrats were left to complain…ineffectually. Not only couldn’t the Democrats pass legislation, they couldn’t even get their proposals considered on the House floor. The Republicans gained no new advantages by cutting the Democratic caucus to 22. But they were able to deprive 2 districts of their representatives in government, effectively telling large parts of Memphis and Nashville that they would get no hearing in the House…at least for the moment. Both districts are overwhelmingly Democratic and Jones and Pearson won their seats handily–and they are certainly more visible and more popular now.
Expulsion put the Tennessee 3 on a much larger map. In the days leading up to the event, they were all interviewed everywhere, and proved themselves to be effective communicators and pretty charming as well. They’ll get more practice, and they’ll all get better, and surely win fans and followers across the country. In every interview, they talk about government inaction on gun violence, the issue that got them expelled. Each is now well-positioned to raise more money for an electoral campaign than any candidate for the state house has ever raised before. (By the way, that job pays just over $24,000 a year, plus a per diem.)
On the eve of the expulsion, young people in Nashville and across the state were already outraged about legislative inaction after a school shooting, and were protesting at the capitol and even staging walk-outs at their schools. None of this is likely to stop. Indeed, the expulsion creates more issues and opportunities, as Jones and Pearson seek to regain office, stage campaigns, and remind their constituents that they were thrown out for protesting about gun violence. Both in their twenties, they look like they could have long political careers.
Clearly frustrated by the Tennessee 3’s protest, the majority had many options for punishment, but buoyed by a supermajority, went right for the extremely rare remedy of expulsion. And they tried to do it as quickly as possible, bypassing any kind of committee process, fact-finding, or considering a formal defense. Instead, in a jury-rigged quick fry, each targeted member got to answer questions before a final vote. Discussion was high stakes and high stress, and–appropriately–none of the 3 demonstrated a bit of contrition. Video highlights are circulating all over the internet.
Then, having decided to go after three members, the majority expelled two Black men in their twenties, and spared an older white woman, repeatedly announcing that it wasn’t about race–almost always a sign that it’s about race. On the interview circuit, Rep. Gloria Johnson was asked everywhere why she alone was allowed to keep her seat, and was quick to praise Pearson and Jones, adding that it “might have to do with the color of our skin.”
She explained (quote from Snopes), “I’m a 60-year-old white woman and they are two young Black men. In listening to the questions, and the way they were questioned, and the way they were talked to… I was talked down to as a woman, mansplained to, but it was completely different from the questioning they got. And this whole idea that […] you have to almost assimilate into this body to be like us.”
She added that she felt the two Black men were spoken to in a “demeaning way” and told “if you’re going to come into this body, you’re going to have to act like this body.”
That majority looks mostly like older white men.
So, the Republican majority created new heroes of their opponents, drew attention to their largely unpopular position, and invited a spotlight that the other side was better prepared to use. They also sent a signal to young Tennesseans that their capitol was no place for debate about the issues they cared about.
And the kicker: The leadership said it wasn’t about the issues or politics, but about House rules and decorum. It’s hard to believe that even the foot soldiers in Donald Trump’s Republican Party see any gains in preserving decorum.
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