Two of the ‘Tennessee Three’ in a contest to win back their seats
From left, Tennessee Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville; Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis; and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville; leave the White House after meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, April 24, 2023. | Andrew Harnik / AP

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Tennessee Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, who became progressive heroes as members of the “Tennessee Three,” are hoping to once again reclaim their legislative seats Thursday after they were expelled for involvement in a gun control protest on the House floor.

The young Black lawmakers were both reinstated by local officials, but only on an interim basis. To fully take back their positions, they must advance through a special election. Both easily cleared their primary election in June, and now face general election opponents for districts that heavily favor Democrats.

Jones, who lives in Nashville, is up against Republican candidate Laura Nelson. Meanwhile, Pearson, from Memphis, faces independent candidate Jeff Johnston.

“Let’s send a clear message to everyone who thought they could silence the voice of District 86,” Pearson tweeted earlier this month. “You can’t expel a movement!”

Jones and Pearson were elected to the GOP-dominated Statehouse last year. Both lawmakers flew relatively under the radar, even as they criticized their Republican colleagues’ policies. It wasn’t until this spring that their political careers received a boost when they led a protest for more gun control on the House floor alongside fellow Democrat Rep. Gloria Johnson.

The demonstration took place just days after a fatal shooting in Nashville at a private Christian school where a shooter killed three children and three adults. As thousands of protesters flooded the Capitol building to demand that the Republican supermajority enact some sort of restrictions on firearms, the three lawmakers approached the front of the House chamber with a bullhorn and joined the protesters’ chants and cries for action.

Republican lawmakers quickly declared that their actions violated House rules and moved to expel their three colleagues—an extraordinary move that’s been taken only a handful of times since the Civil War.

The move briefly left about 140,000 voters in primarily Black districts in Nashville and Memphis with no representation in the Tennessee House.

Ultimately, Johnson, who is white, narrowly avoided expulsion while Pearson and Jones were booted by the predominantly white GOP caucus.

House Republican leaders have repeatedly denied that race was a factor in the expulsion hearings. Democrats have disagreed, with Johnson countering that the only reason that she wasn’t expelled was due to her being white.

The expulsions drew national support for the newly dubbed “Tennessee Three,” especially for Pearson and Jones’ campaign fundraising. The two raised more than $2 million combined through about 70,400 campaign donations from across the country. The amount is well beyond the norm for Tennessee’s Republican legislative leaders and virtually unheard of for two freshman Democrats in a superminority.

Meanwhile, more than 15 Republican lawmakers have funneled cash to fund the campaign efforts of Jones’ Republican opponent, Laura Nelson. Nelson has raised more than $34,000 for the race. Pearson’s opponent, Jeff Johnston, has raised less than $400 for the contest.

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Kimberlee Kruesi
Kimberlee Kruesi

AP reporter writing on regional politics from Nashville.