KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee House of Representatives voted on three resolutions on Thursday that would expel three Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), following a demonstration over gun violence on the House floor. At the end of the day, Johnson retained her seat by a single vote, but her two fellow lawmakers ended up being expelled by the Republican supermajority.
Lawmakers first took up a resolution to expel Rep. Justin Jones (D - Nashville). Representative John Ray Clemmons (D- Nashville) condemned the vote after debate was stopped on the House floor.
"You don't belong here. You want to call the question? I am humiliated, I am embarrassed," he said before the vote. "The loss of life, not just those six loss of life, but people across this state that continue to be killed by gun violence."
A group of lawmakers stood by Jones as he spoke for five minutes before the vote.
"My prayer to you is that even if you expel me, you still act to address the crisis of school shootings," said Jones. "I pray that we uphold our oath on this floor, because, colleagues, the world is watching."
Lawmakers voted to expel him in a 72-25 vote.
Lawmakers then took up a resolution to expel Rep. Gloria Johnson (D - Knoxville). One lawmaker said that Rep. Johnson had not shouted during the protest, and condemned the language of the resolution which said she did. He also said she did not display a sign, as the resolution claimed.
"This document is not only inaccurate — it's an outright distortion of her conduct," the lawmaker said. "She's never had a single ethics violation ... she's never broken the public trust, not one time."
Representative John Mark Windle (D - Livingston) also spoke. He said that in previous incidents where rules were broken, lawmakers did not consider expelling members.
"Many of you are fully aware that members of both parties are shocked at what is occurring today," he said. "A vote for expulsion under the present circumstance is a vote against due process ... and most importantly, entirely against the will of the people."
She said she did not speak on the House floor with the other two representatives during the protest, as the resolution claimed. She said the resolution was not factual and said that by joining the other representatives, she felt she was bringing the voice of people in her district who wanted more gun restrictions, such as red flag laws, to the House.
"I absolutely never yelled," she said. "We may have broken a House rule by coming to this well, but much of what is in this document is false."
Rep. Gino Bulso (R - Brentwood), insisted that the resolution was factual. He filed the resolution to expel Rep. Johnson. Language from the resolution is below.
WHEREAS, at approximately 10:49 AM, Representative Johnson and her colleagues, having gathered at her desk, moved in unison to the well and began shouting without recognition;
He repeatedly asked if she had yelled or if she had disrupted the chamber. Johnson repeatedly denied it.
"Many of my colleagues walk past those folks without ever making eye contact with them. I cried with them that morning ... something that would keep the guns from ever getting to the schoolhouse doors, and that is why I walked to the front with my colleagues who felt the same because their generation is a generation that grew up in this gun violence. We are better than this, Tennessee," she said.
Rep. Johnson started to get teary-eyed as she spoke during her last five minutes, speaking about conversations she had with a family member who works in gun manufacturing. She also discussed her experience as a gun owner, emphasizing that her gun was her father's service revolver.
"We've done so much damage up here to vulnerable communities this year ... and I cannot tell you how many calls I received from Republicans and Democrats and Independents from my district saying thank you, and from other constituents in Knox County," she said. "We need to allow people to speak for the 70,000 folks that elected us up here."
A resolution to expel her failed in a 65-30 vote. The resolution fell just one vote short of the 66 needed to reach a two-thirds overall majority to pass.
Lawmakers then took up a resolution that would expel Rep. Justin J. Pearson (D - Memphis). Rep. Andrew Farmer (R - Sevierville) introduced the resolution.
"Don't start by commandeering the well while we're conducting business ... That's why you're standing there, because of that temper tantrum that day. Because of that yearning to have attention," Farmer said while addressing Pearson.
Pearson asked how many people in the chamber would want "to be spoken to that way?"
"He's comfortable doing it because there's a decorum that allows it. There's a decorum that allows you to belittle people. We didn't belittle nobody," said Pearson. "We haven't taken our oath seriously. We don't take people we agree with seriously. We tell them, 'You are just throwing a temper tantrum.'"
Some lawmakers joined Pearson as he spoke for the final five minutes. The state's camera feed incorrectly labeled him as recently-expelled Rep. Justin Jones during that time. A few minutes later, it was corrected.
The resolution to expel him passed in a 69-26 vote.
The session ended with a roar of people chanting "shame on you," filling the chamber as Speaker Cameron Sexton tried to bring the day to a close. The legislature will next meet on Monday, April 10.
A few days prior, Tennessee Republican leadership removed the three Democratic lawmakers from their committees and subcommittees on Monday days after peaceful protests at the state capitol, later filing bills to expel them from their seats.
Later Monday, Republicans filed three separate House Resolutions to expel the three from their seats in the House, which if passed would leave the seats vacant. The resolutions were filed by Rep. Gino Bulso (R-Brentwood), Rep. Bud Hulsey (R-Kingsport) and Rep. Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville).
A few minutes before the House voted to formally introduce the resolutions, a crowd of protesters gathered in the upstairs gallery -- chanting "fascists" and yelling at lawmakers on the floor.
At that time, Rep. Jones was filming the chants on his phone as Tennessee officers tried to move the crowd outside. At one point while he is filming, he said Rep. Justin Lafferty (R-Knoxville) pushed him and grabbed his phone. Jones shared the video on social media.
Jones tried to bring up the incident when the house resumed, but House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) cut off his microphone and told him it was not a "parliamentary question" but an "accusation."
Rep. Johnson gave a brief comment during the unfinished business portion of the legislative day.
"I'd just like to say... those who deny freedom to others deserve it not from themselves, as Abraham Lincoln said," Johnson said.
Sexton (R-Crossville) said the three Democratic lawmakers were removed last week from their committees for "rushing the well" and "leading a protest" on the House floor with a bullhorn.
"Their actions are and will always be unacceptable, and they break several rules of decorum and procedure on the House floor," he said on Monday.
Days after The Covenant School shooting in Nashville, hundreds of people protested inside and outside the capitol as the legislature began taking up bills on Thursday.
Johnson said she spent some time with the protesters inside the rotunda before the session started, talking to a few about why they were there. She said the three wanted to welcome and honor the protesters on the floor but said their voices were shut down.
"And then there was no opportunities to speak on the floor, and to even address it then. And then we had a bill about vouchers. And they wouldn't call on several of us to allow us to speak on issues affecting our community. And at that point, we just said, you know, between the next bills, let's walk up to the well, and acknowledge that there are people out there that care deeply about their children and their community," she said.
Johnson said the three anticipated their microphone being cut, so one of the members brought a small bullhorn with them to continue speaking. In an interview with 10News, Johnson said that the three knew they were breaking a House rule.
"I fully acknowledge that. But I broke that rule in order to fight for Tennessee's children, Tennessee's teachers, Tennessee's churches. We have got to address this issue. And we have got to make sure that both sides of the aisle are talking about this issue. And I will break protocol if I need to fight for Tennessee kids," she said. "2000 people were outside the doors begging us to talk about gun violence. The least we could do is acknowledge that they were there... that they cared and they're fighting for their community."
Kathy Sinback, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, decried the actions of Republican lawmakers.
“Trying to expel three lawmakers without due process for amplifying the voices of their constituents in a peaceful, non-violent manner undermines democracy. Expulsion is an extreme measure that is used very infrequently in our state and our country because it strips voters of representation by the people they elected. Instead of rushing to expel members for expressing their ethical convictions about crucial social issues, House leadership should turn to solving the real challenges facing our state,” Sinback said.