A heartbreaking spectacle in my native Tennessee made me appreciate Virginia all the more

Using a bullhorn to hijack discourse on Virginia’s House or Senate floors is hard to imagine. But it’s easier to conceive than one party reflexively using expulsion, which denies tens of thousands of voters their elective voice in government, as redress. 

April 17, 2023 12:02 am

Tennessee State Rep. Gloria Johnson and former Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones exit the chapel at Fisk University in Nashville, a historically Black college that played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement. (Photo:John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout)

It had been decades since I watched proceedings of the Tennessee Legislature as a cub reporter. What I saw in my native state this month saddened me but increased my appreciation for my state of choice, Virginia, where such embarrassments are less likely.

On live television, I saw the Republican supermajority in Tennessee’s House of Representatives expel two African American Democrats from the House to which their constituents had elected them in a scene that evoked Jim Crow.

Their offense? A noisy March 30 breach of House decorum, three days after someone armed with an assault-style rifle fired 152 rounds that killed three 9-year-old children and three teachers in just a few minutes at a church school a short cab ride from Nashville’s Legislative Plaza. As demonstrators clamored for tougher gun laws, the two Black lawmakers — Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin Pearson, D-Memphis — led chants from the well of the House and used a bullhorn to engage with protesters in the gallery. A third Democrat, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, joined Pearson and Jones but did not use the bullhorn. Their actions stymied legislative business.

Gov. Bill Lee delivers the State of the State Address Feb. 6, 2023 inside the House chambers of the Tennessee State Capitol. (Bill Lee/Flickr)

On April 6, the House’s GOP leadership held a vote to expel all three. After hours of acrimonious, racially charged debate, Republicans, who control 75 of the chamber’s 99 seats, made an awful situation even worse by ousting the two Black men and falling a vote shy of the 66-vote (two-thirds) threshold for removing Johnson, who is White.

“It might have something to do with the color of my skin,” Johnson said of narrowly surviving her ouster vote.

Without question, all three deserved punishment. Deliberative bodies can’t function amid such chaos. But House Republicans, drunk on their own hubris and hell-bent on the nuclear option, blew right past such measured responses for a first offense as censure or stripping the offending representatives of their committee assignments.

The expulsions were a grotesque abuse of discretion and an egregious, unforced error that stains Tennessee’s Republican elite. The optics are damning because the act was damnable. Perhaps House Speaker Cameron Sexton believed it might pass quietly or that it wouldn’t be perceived globally as a rank revival of 1950s-style Deep South racism. He was dreadfully wrong on both counts.

Underscoring the ugly futility of the House GOP’s actions, Democratic-dominated governing councils in Nashville and Memphis within six days had appointed Jones and Pearson, respectively, to return to the House and fill the vacancies their expulsions created. They will serve the interim appointments while running as prohibitive favorites in upcoming special elections for the remainder of their terms, costs the expulsions created that Nashville and Memphis taxpayers will bear.

From a tactical standpoint, pro-gun forces at least momentarily ceded ground. Republican Gov. Bill Lee, saddened and sobered by the loss of two family friends in the school shooting and the furious nationwide backlash against the expulsions, signed an executive order requiring stronger background checks for gun purchases. He also recommended passage of a “red flag” law that police and courts can use to remove guns from people who are a danger to themselves and others, a measure the GOP base broadly opposes.

Tennessee’s House has cashiered members only twice since Reconstruction, according to The Tennessean. It happened in 1980 to a representative convicted of soliciting a $1,000 bribe and in 2016 to a member accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1866, when six state representatives were removed for opposing Tennessee’s ratification of the 14th Amendment granting citizenship to formerly enslaved people.

Like Tennessee, Virginia’s House and Senate are constitutionally empowered to punish members for misconduct or expel them on a two-thirds vote. Current House rules state that for “frequent or repeated violations of order” that persist after a warning from the speaker, a delegate “will be liable to the censure of the House.”

The last Virginia House expulsion came in 1876 when Del. Robert Davis Ruffin was removed over charges that he embezzled House funds, according to the office of House Clerk G. Paul Nardo. Two years ago, the Democratic-controlled Senate censured Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, for “a pattern of unacceptable conduct” capped by her support for rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Unlike Tennessee, Virginia is a “Goldilocks” state — not too hot, not too cold; not too red, not too blue — more inclined toward partisan balance.

In 2021, Virginians stunned the political establishment by electing as governor a Republican in his first race for any public office over a previous governor and legendary Democratic rainmaker. The year before, Democrat Joe Biden won the commonwealth by 10 percentage points in his victory over Republican President Donald Trump.

The last House supermajority in Virginia was seated in 2014 when the GOP owned 67 of the 100 seats. The party came close in 2012 and in 2016 when it controlled 66 seats. Democrats held a 55-45 majority for 2020 and 2021, but the GOP has had 52 seats since the start of 2022.

Rural Virginia shares a strong, pro-Republican kinship with Tennessee — a slim, 500-mile Republican-voting expanse from the Appalachians west to the Mississippi River except for Democratic-voting islands in metropolitan Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga. Legislative Republicans further optimized their numbers by controlling  Tennessee’s 2021 redistricting process.

In Virginia, the vote of conservative rural localities is counterbalanced by the densely populated and Democratic-leaning urban/suburban crescent that bends from the sprawling Washington, D.C., suburbs and exurbs, south to the Richmond area, then southeast down the Peninsula to Hampton Roads.

Also unlike Tennessee, where legislators pick their voters rather than the other way around, Virginia’s reapportionment is done by an independent Redistricting Commission or, should the commission fail as it did two years ago, by the Virginia Supreme Court. In lines the court drew without regard for party or incumbency for this year’s 140 General Assembly seats, neither Democrats nor Republicans gained appreciably, though rural population losses concentrated more districts in the suburbs and cities.

Less quantifiable but nevertheless relevant is this: using a bullhorn to hijack discourse on Virginia’s House or Senate floors is hard to imagine. But it’s easier to conceive than one party reflexively using expulsion, which denies tens of thousands of voters their elective voice in government, as redress. 

On Richmond’s Capitol Square, the ancient, genteel notion of “the Virginia Way” has been battered and tattered by increasingly acidic partisanship, but it hasn’t flatlined … yet.

Then again, what happened in Nashville on April 6 was unimaginable, too, when I sat in the Tennessee House’s press section 40 years ago.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]