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Tennessee lawmakers vote to expel 2 young Black Democrats from state House

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In an unprecedented decision that's captured the nation's attention, Tennessee's Republican-controlled House voted to expel two lawmakers.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The two Democrats participated in a gun control protest on the House floor. They were responding to a school shooting in Tennessee that killed three children and three adults, and then they were thrown out. A third Democrat, Gloria Johnson, also joined the protests but gets to keep her job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GLORIA JOHNSON: It might have to do with the color of our skin.

INSKEEP: Johnson is white, while the two lawmakers expelled were Black. One is Justin Pearson. The other is Justin Jones, who said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN JONES: What we see today is a lynch mob assembled to not lynch me, but our democratic process.

INSKEEP: After the expulsions, protesters chanted shame on you to the Republicans.

FADEL: For more, we're joined by WPLN political reporter Blaise Gainey. He joins us from Nashville.

Good morning, Blaise.

BLAISE GAINEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So let's start with how it got to this point.

GAINEY: Three Democratic lawmakers went to the podium, used to present bills, in the middle of a session to speak about the need to address gun control. This was days after six lives were taken by a school shooter wielding two assault rifles and a pistol. They said that they were only doing this after their microphone had been cut off when trying to acknowledge the thousands of protesters asking for gun control legislation at the Capitol that day.

FADEL: And so ultimately, they broke a rule of decorum in the House, right?

GAINEY: Correct.

FADEL: So what I'm trying to understand is how unprecedented this is. Other than just after the Civil War, only two lawmakers have ever been expelled, and that was over possibly criminal behavior - one convicted of bribery, the other accused of sexual misconduct. So what is the GOP in Tennessee - what message are they sending by expelling these two members over breaking a rule?

GAINEY: The House speaker, Cameron Sexton, says he didn't want the actions of the lawmakers to be taken lightly. He thought it set a bad precedent. He felt that expulsion was the right punishment. But several worry it could set a bad precedent, actually, to expel the lawmakers over breaking a House rule and not something more serious as sexual assault or bribery.

FADEL: And what has the public's reaction been to these expulsions?

GAINEY: They've been upset - the ones physically at the Capitol and the ones that I've seen commenting online. Every now and then, you'll find a commenter that does feel the three deserve to be expelled, but it doesn't nearly match the several tweets and emails I've gotten claiming otherwise. I've also seen several pointing out that the only two that were expelled were Black men under 30 who were outspoken about their dissent of certain bills that come up during session.

FADEL: What happens next for these members who've been expelled?

GAINEY: Well, the two lawmakers expelled come from Democratic-leaning counties, and that could mean they'll be back in their seat before the end of the month. On Monday, Nashville's Metro Council is going to vote to seat a representative for the empty seat left by Jones. And several members on that council have already said they choose Jones. While I haven't heard what county commissioners in Shelby County, where Memphis lies, expects to do, I get the sense they'd do the same for Justin Pearson.

FADEL: WPLN Political reporter Blaise Gainey.

Thank you so much for your time.

GAINEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.