After expulsion and reinstatement, Tennessee Reps. Pearson, Jones advance past Democratic primaries

The pair's protest took place on March 30, three days after a shooting at The Covenant School, a Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee killed three 9-year-olds and three adults.

Tennessee Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones have advanced past an election hurdle after the two young Black lawmakers were expelled earlier this year for their gun control protest on the House floor, then reinstated by local officials days afterward.

Pearson appeared to handily defeat Democratic opponent David Page on Thursday in his Memphis district and advance to face independent candidate Jeff Johnston in the Aug. 3 general election, according to unofficial results from the Shelby County Election Commission with all precincts reporting. He has no Republican opponent for the seat, which favors Democrats.

Jones was unopposed in Thursday’s primary election for his Nashville seat, which also is heavily Democratic. He faces Republican Laura Nelson in the Aug. 3 general election.

Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson (left), state Rep. Justin Jones (center) and state Rep. Gloria Johnson (right) hold their hands up as they exit the House Chamber doors at Tennessee state Capitol Building in Nashville, Tenneesee last Monday, April 3, 2023. The three Democratic House members faced expulsion — the two Blacks were expelled — for using a bullhorn in the House chamber to show support for pro-gun control protesters. Nashville officials are poised to vote Monday to reinstate Jones. (Photo: Nicole Hester/The Tennessean via AP, File)

In a phone interview Friday, Pearson said the primary in his special election marked a victory in his district’s “quest to restore its representation.”

“It’s important in a democracy that the people’s choice, the people’s voice, the people’s vote be respected,” Pearson told The Associated Press. “The Republican Party of Tennessee has not respected the will of District 86.”

The Associated Press did not tabulate the results for the races.

The pair’s protest took place on March 30, three days after a shooting at The Covenant School, a Christian school in Nashville, killed three 9-year-olds and three adults. Republican lawmakers booted the lawmakers from office on April 6 for violating decorum rules during the protest, while sparing Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, from expulsion by one vote for her role in the demonstration.

A crying child presses their hand against the window of a bus marked Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
A child weeps while on the bus leaving The Covenant School following a mass shooting at the school in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, March 27, 2023. (Nicole Hester/The Tennessean via AP)

Within a week, officials in Nashville and Shelby County, which includes Memphis, voted to appoint the lawmakers back to their seats on an interim basis.

Over a matter of weeks, Pearson, Jones and Johnson rose to national prominence.

They made tours of national media appearances, hauled in campaign donations from across the country and visited President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House.

Pearson grew up in Memphis and went to high school in the same district he now represents. The sprawling district sits on the Mississippi River, winding along neighborhoods, forests and wetlands of south Memphis, through parts of downtown and then north into a series of semi-rural communities.

Pearson first won a special election primary for his seat in January. Because he had no general election opponent, local officials appointed him to fill the seat early. After his expulsion, he was appointed back to the seat. If he wins the August general election, he will still be up for election again in the 2024 cycle, with an August primary and November general election.

Jones’ district wends into Nashville’s Antioch neighborhood, southeast portions of the city and part of East Nashville, and it includes Nashville International Airport. He was elected in 2022 and will also be up for reelection in 2024.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are preparing for a special session called by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who is pushing to remove firearms from people judged dangerous to themselves or others. Republicans, who have supermajorities in the House and Senate, declined to take up Lee’s proposal during the legislative session that ended in April. Lee told reporters this week that crafting the parameters of what will be considered during the session could take a couple more months, as he fields input from lawmakers.

Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, and state Rep. Justin Jones
(L-R) Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, and state Rep. Justin Jones depart the White House to speak with members of the press after meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office April 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. Biden met with the three state representatives known as the “Tennessee Three” to discuss ongoing efforts to ban assault weapons. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Democrats have pushed for a variety of gun control changes beyond what Lee has proposed. Pearson has carried more than a dozen gun-related bills, some of which would largely ban high-capacity magazines, prohibit production of semi-automatic rifles in Tennessee, and create a red-flag law — a label Lee says doesn’t fit his proposal.

“We shouldn’t be campaigning right now. We should be preparing completely for special session and making sure that the legislation that we put forward gets its fair chance to be heard,” Pearson said. “That’s what we should be able to be investing our time on. But it’s due to the unjust actions of the Republican Party that we’re having to run again.”

Julia Bruck, the Tennessee secretary of state office’s spokesperson, has said local officials believe the Nashville special election will cost about $120,000 to administer, while the Memphis one will cost between $375,000 and $500,000.

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