Reps. Justin Pearson of Memphis and Justin Jones of Nashville both comfortably reclaimed their legislative seats in the Tennessee House in a Thursday special election.
Jones celebrated the victory with a tweet, noting the pair will be back in the state House when a special session to discuss potential changes to the state’s gun control laws begins later this month.
The landslide victories came almost three months after Pearson and Jones — two young, Black Democrats — were expelled by Tennessee Republicans for participating in a peaceful gun protest on the House floor.
During the April demonstration, Pearson and Jones, alongside Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville — an older white woman, who survived the GOP-led attempt to oust the trio — joined a group of demonstrators, made up mostly of teachers, children and parents holding signs and protesting the Nashville school shooting that left three children and three school personnel dead. The group packed the state’s Capitol building and the House gallery and chanted, calling for gun restrictions. Jones, Johnson and Pearson cheered on the protestors from the front of the House chamber, with two of them using a bullhorn.
In response, state Republicans moved forward with efforts to oust them, claiming the three Democrats “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions.”
The Republican House leadership also made bad faith and over-the-top comparisons, likening the trio’s behavior to the Jan. 6 “insurrection.”
“Two of the members — Representative Jones and Representative Johnson — have been very vocal about Jan. 6 and Washington, D.C., about what that was,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) said. “What they did today was equivalent, at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it, to doing an insurrection in the State Capitol.”
House Republican leaders have repeatedly denied that race was a factor in the expulsions of the two Black lawmakers. But Democrats across the country, including Tennessee Democrat and third protestor Johnson, pushed back on the argument, saying that the only reason that she wasn’t expelled was because she is white.
Pearson also echoed that sentiment, saying at the time many across the county were “upset about the anti-democratic behavior of this White supremacist-led state legislature.”
With the strong national pushback from Democrats, the expulsions drew national support for the trio, dubbed the “Tennessee Three.” That national support came in especially handy for Pearson and Jones as they fundraised for their re-election campaigns.The two raised more than $2 million combined through about 70,400 campaign donations from across the country, according to the Associated Press an unheard of amount of cash for two freshman Democrats in a statehouse superminority.
On the flip side, more than 15 Republican lawmakers funneled cash to fund the campaign efforts of Jones’ opponent Laura Nelson (R). Nelson raised more than $34,000 for the race. But despite GOP efforts, Jones won approximately 78% of the votes in House District 52 against Nelson.
Meanwhile, Pearson’s opponent Jeff Johnston, an Independent, raised less than $400. And Pearson ended up earning approximately 94% of the votes in Tennessee’s House District 86.
Once the Democrats were expelled in April, their House seats automatically became vacant. And, according to Tennessee law, it fell on the respective county legislative bodies to make an appointment to fill the seats of the expelled lawmakers temporarily until a special election could be held.
With the Thursday election, both Democrats have now officially won their respective special elections to formally return to their seats for the rest of their two-year term.
The Republicans’ efforts to keep the members, who dared to speak out about gun violence, out of office ultimately failed. In addition to having their seats back, the young Black Democrats made a national name for themselves, guaranteeing more than enough support to reclaim their seats.
And Johnson, who was also praised for her role as a part of the Tennessee Three, is reportedly eyeing a mid-August launch for a Senate campaign against Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).