Protesters: Power to the people, power to the people.
Female Speaker: Louder.
Protesters: Power to the people, power to the people.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks for starting your week with us. Today, officials in Nashville are scheduled to vote to reinstate former Tennessee State Representative Justin Jones. Jones was expelled from the state legislature last Thursday. That day, state Rep Justin Pearson of Memphis was also expelled by lawmakers. The Memphis City Council could reappoint Pearson during their meeting on Wednesday of this week.
Even if both are reappointed by their respective city councils, the appointments are not permanent. Each would have to seek reelection to their respective seats in a special election that's not yet been scheduled. How did we get here?
Protesters: Fight for gun control, I'm going to let it shine. Fight for gun control, I'm going to let it shine.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Just days after a shooter killed six people, including three children at the Covenant School in Nashville, representatives Jones and Pearson joined thousands of people, including students and teachers who gathered at the Tennessee State Capitol.
[crosstalk] [cheering] [chanting]
Protesters: No action, no peace. No action, no peace. No action, no peace.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: State Rep Gloria Johnson from Knoxville was also among the protesters. Jones, Pearson, and Johnson also interrupted a House floor session and took over the speaking podium as they led chants with protesters in the House gallery with a megaphone.
Protesters: No action, no peace. No action, no peace.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: After a short recess was called, Tennessee leaders decided to sanction the three lawmakers. Jones and Pearson were ultimately expelled for violating House rules of decorum. Representative Johnson narrowly escaped expulsion by one vote.
Male Speaker: We're talking about providing damn guns and [inaudible 00:02:19].
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: On Monday morning, before the vote on whether to reinstate Justin Jones, we spoke with Blaise Gainey, political reporter at WPLN, Nashville's public radio station. Okay, Blaise, how likely is it that these two lawmakers are going to be reinstated this week?
Blaise Gainey: I think it's highly likely. Definitely, Representative Justin Jones will be reseated, or at least proposed to be back in his seat today. There's a 40-member council here in Nashville that will vote to seat him this afternoon, and they could easily do so. Majority of the members, it looks like, have already came out and made statements saying that they would vote to seat him. In Shelby County where Representative Justin J. Pearson is, they have also come out. While it's not as many, and they only have a nine-member advantage for Democrats there, if all the Democrats go on board, he'd be welcome back in his seat also.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Do you have a sense of the likely reaction from leadership in the Tennessee House, both Republican and Democratic leadership if these two representatives are reinstated?
Blaise Gainey: Yes. We haven't spoken directly with leadership since this has come out that the two would likely be right back in their seats so soon, but some of the Black Caucus members are worried that House Speaker Cameron Sexton could delay the process of actually seating them and getting them as official members of the body because session can end next month. In about one month, session is likely to end, and just a little delay could cause them to miss their ability to speak or vote on several bills.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: It's always just so critical for us. I think we tend to think of state houses as though they operate like the US House, but it is not like that at all, right? Relatively short sessions, all the work happening fairly quickly.
Blaise Gainey: Yes. They started in January. In a two-year span, they only have 60 session days that they can use, so they have to use those wisely.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: You mentioned the Tennessee House Speaker, Cameron Sexton. I want to take a listen here to something he said on a talk news program 98.7 in Knoxville.
Speaker Cameron Sexton: Representative Jones and Representative Johnson have been very vocal about January 6th in Washington, D.C. about what that was. What they did today was at least equivalent, maybe worse, depending on how you look at it, of doing an insurrection in the Capitol.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: My friend Blaise, he has made a comparison, a clear, direct line here saying that what happened in the context of this protest and these lawmakers taking part in it is the same as what happened at the insurrection at the Federal Capitol. How is that argument being received?
Blaise Gainey: You sort of laughed after you heard it. I think a lot of people are-- maybe some aren't laughing because this is a serious matter. I think people are very upset that he would liken something to January 6 where people died, officers were assaulted, property was damaged. People defecated inside of the Capitol building on January 6th. Nobody did that here. This was kids and parents walking around.
Now, we've spoken to the House Speaker about that statement. He said that he's only saying the three were trying to incite a riot and not that the thousands of protesters were any part of this insurrection he's claiming could have been worse than January 6th. What these three people did is in a four-minute span of talking on the floor to him saying it's worse than people going through the Capitol with weapons, I think it shows that he thinks one side is not as dangerous, and when another person does it, it threatens the establishment.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. You also have said a couple of times here the three people, but of course, only two were expelled. A lot of folks are also making something of the fact that the two expelled lawmakers are not only two of the youngest lawmakers in the State House but are also Black men, whereas the one lawmaker who's not expelled is a white woman. Is there reason to believe that race was the key determining factor here or is there something else about, for example, the representative who is not expelled having a different relationship with the leadership?
Blaise Gainey: No. Representative Gloria Johnson has been in the legislature longer, and it's actually a little more surprising that they wouldn't have gotten rid of her. She is similar to the new young lawmakers who were expelled. She definitely calls them out. She's proposed multiple amendments to, say, the abortion amendments and tries to loosen them as much as possible. She's proposed red flag laws in the past. A lot of things that they just don't want to answer to and have to talk about, she brings them up a lot. It was actually a little surprising. It's not like she's their friend in this. She said it herself that she believes the color of her skin played into her staying an elected member.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: These new young lawmakers who were both expelled are also new in part because of redistricting that happens right after the new state lines, new district lines drawn after the 2020 census. Can you talk to me about the districts from which these now former representatives were elected and how maybe they're different from what those districts looked like prior?
Blaise Gainey: Yes. I will say they changed, but not a whole lot. I think more so is that these have been seats that have historically been represented by Democrats and also the one in Memphis by a Black Democrat. Representative Justin J. Pearson, his seat before was held by Representative Barbara Cooper who passed away right before being elected. She won the race still, and then they had a special election.
Similar to how Justin J. Pearson can be seated right now, he was actually seated by the County Commission and then won a special election to get this seat. I've already joked around with a couple of people about it. It's like by the time that he gets back into the legislature, he would have been elected three times, essentially, in just one term.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, quick break. More on Tennessee's State House right after this. All right, we're back with Blaise Gainey from WPLN, Nashville's public radio station. Whether we're going all the way back to a period of reconstruction history and P.B.S. Pinchback, who was briefly the Governor of Louisiana, wins a seat in the US House of Representatives but is never allowed to actually take that seat, or whether we go to Wilmington, North Carolina where there's an insurrection to actually overturn a fusion government that included Black elected leaders.
I guess I'm wondering, I know some folks are saying, "Oh, has this ever happened before?" It most certainly has, but at a time, I think, that we like to think of as our distant past. Is this an indication that that past is not so distant?
Blaise Gainey: I think it's possibly an indication that past isn't so distant, but also that Tennessee is still in the past, at least, in the way that the state is run by one party, and the other party really has no say, no power in the legislature. They're in a super minority, and they need help from Republicans to pass even a bill that just needs 50% plus 1. As you saw, they couldn't stop their own members from being expelled. That becomes a really big problem in these situations where, usually--
I think the bigger thing about this is how egregious it is to expel somebody for breaking a house rule, instead of not expelling members right away who were accused of sexual assault or bribery in the past, and have text messages come out that talk about doing drugs in the Tennessee General Assembly buildings, and all types of other things that have come out against other lawmakers, and they've stayed in, or went through a due process that took months to get them kicked out. Even then, it was a bipartisan vote to do so. Having one party just come out and say a member of another party should be expelled, I think that's the big difference in this situation.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Blaise, let me ask you one last question here. Of course, this all begins around a protest, or the final moment here is around a protest around gun laws. Can you tell me-- again, as you were pointing out, there's this brief, intense period of being in session for the state legislature. What do we know about Tennessee and Tennessee's gun laws?
Blaise Gainey: You can get a gun without a background check. I know, in many states, you can do that, but you can permitless carry. You can open and carry. Right now, they are still trying to drop the age from 21 to 18 for permitless carry. There's no bans on bump stocks or assault rifles or magazine sizes. It is pretty loose. If you look up some of our statistics, we're almost top five in all of the worst statistics that you want to be ranked in, definitely for people that are having their guns stolen out of cars. That's become a huge problem here in Tennessee. You can't not pay attention to the fact that the homicide rate has also went up since permitless carry was put into place in 2021.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Blaise Gainey, political reporter with WPLN, Nashville's public radio station. Blaise, thanks for talking with us today.
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