Tennessee expels lawmakers. Will Texas follow? (Editorial)

Before last week, the most famous Tennessee lawmaker ever to be “expelled” from office ended up in Texas. Unlike what happened in Tennessee last week, it was voters, not fellow lawmakers, who decided they didn’t want David Crockett representing them in Congress anymore. His response is legendary: “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

Crockett had plans. In a letter to his daughter Margaret, he described Texas as a paradise. “I am in hopes of making a fortune yet for myself and family, bad as my prospects have been,” he wrote. Of course, fate had other plans for “the king of the wild frontier.”

State Reps. Justin Jones from Nashville and Justin Pearson from Memphis, the two Democratic lawmakers expelled from the Tennessee House by their Republican counterparts, could, like Crockett, decamp to Texas if they so desired  — Tennessee-Texas ties have traditionally run deep — but they’d be moving to a state just as robustly red as the one they’d be leaving. Regardless, the two lawmakers have vowed to stay and fight. Nashville’s Metro Council voted Monday late afternoon in a 36-0 vote to return Jones to his seat. Pearson’s vacant seat will be considered during a special meeting of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in Memphis on Wednesday.

Jones, Pearson and a third Democrat, Gloria Johnson, faced expulsion, ostensibly for violating rules of decorum. They participated in a boisterous March 30 demonstration led by thousands of school children, teachers and parents demanding action from lawmakers in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Nashville two weeks ago. Johnson avoided expulsion by one vote.

Since House Speaker Cameron Sexton had the option of reprimanding, censuring or removing the three lawmakers from their respective legislative committees, something else must explain his intemperate response. We think we know what it is: GOP lawmakers in Tennessee have something against the name “Justin” (from the Latin derivative for “just, virtuous.”) Of the three lawmakers targeted, after all, it was the two Justins who were shown the door, while Gloria gets to stay.

Surely, it’s the name — too yuppy? too faddish? — although Johnson suggested that maybe, just maybe, it’s something else.

"I think it's pretty clear,” the former Knoxville school teacher said shortly after the votes on expulsion. “I'm a 60-year-old White woman, and they are two young Black men. In listening to the questions and the way they were questioned and the way they were talked to, I was talked down to as a woman, mansplained to, but it was completely different from the questioning that they got.”

One possible factor in her being spared is that Johnson did not use a megaphone in the assembly as Jones and Pearson did. That the two participated in anything like an "insurrection" as some Republicans have claimed, however, is ridiculous. They broke rules, not windows.

It's hard not to see the expulsion of Jones and Pearson through the lens of the state's difficult history. Johnson reminded reporters that just a few days earlier, during a discussion about bringing back firing squads as a crime-fighting tactic, a Republican legislator suggested bringing back lynching trees , as well. As now-former Rep. Pearson put it, shortly before the vote against him, “They didn’t like hearing from an uppity Negro.” (Pearson and Jones are both in their 20s.)

Tennessee lawmakers can be just as obtuse as they want to be — or as long as voters allow them to be — but what must concern the rest of us is their potential for contagion. In Wisconsin, Montana, Idaho, North Carolina and other states where super-majorities enjoy super control in their legislatures, Lord Acton’s venerable dictum about the corruptive nature of absolute power holds. That’s why in Tennessee these days lawmakers are confident they can get away with smothering dissent and ignoring thousands of constituents concerned about gun violence. That’s why other state legislatures, taking advantage of extreme gerrymandering, have pushed for the most extreme anti-abortion measures, despite the will of the majority in most states.

Expulsion as a tool for wielding power could happen in Texas, where one party has enjoyed almost absolute control for nearly three decades. Fortunately, neither House Speaker Dade Phelan nor Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, command the super-majorities required to expel a member. (Phelan has always seemed like a reasonable fellow, but arm the lieutenant governor with a super-majority, and he might be tempted.) In 2013, when state Sen. Wendy Davis ran out the clock on anti-abortion legislation, some legislators may have encouraged the hollering from the gallery that disrupted proceedings but no one took over the lectern or was censured.

David Crockett, one of Patrick’s heroes, consigned his critics to hell. Raise it, we would suggest. Those teachers, students and parents marching on the Tennessee Capitol have the right idea. So do the Uvalde parents and students who have made their anguished voices heard in Austin . They’re reminding the power-hungry that their appetite has limits. To paraphrase Ol’ Davy, they’re making sure they’re right, and then they’re going ahead.

This article was updated Monday afternoon to reflect the Nashville Metro Council's vote to reinstate Justin Jones.