Tennessee lawmakers at center of expulsion vote label it ‘huge threat to democracy’

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(NEW YORK) — The three Tennessee lawmakers at the center of a controversial and unprecedented expulsion vote last week said Monday that their fight continues — to reduce gun violence and to see the two of them who were ousted back in their seats.

Four days ago, Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson were expelled from the state House of Representatives by the Republican super-majority after participating in a raucous, unrecognized gun violence protest on the Legislature floor.

The pair and Rep. Gloria Johnson, who also faced expulsion but survived by one vote, sat down for a group interview with ABC News on Monday.

Johnson called the ousting of Jones and Pearson a “huge threat to democracy.”

“We are silencing dissenting voices. We aren’t listening to the people. The whole point of democracy is a people rule,” Johnson said in the interview.

Jones and Pearson, both Black, and Johnson, who is white, all feel that race was a factor.

“I want to commend sister Gloria as a 60-year-old white woman for standing with us,” Jones said. “And then even after having her expulsion canceled, still standing for the truth and saying it’s about race.”

For more from the three lawmakers’ interview about the expulsion and what’s next, watch ABC News Live Prime and ABC’s “Nightline.”

The state House speaker, Cameron Sexton, has challenged that view. “That’s a false narrative on her part,” he said on “Fox & Friends” on Friday, of Johnson. “It’s unfortunate. She’s trying to put political racism in this, which there was nothing on this.”

Leading Tennessee Republicans have defended the expulsions — the first such partisan removals in the state in modern history — as necessary to restore order.

“It’s not possible for us to move forward with the way they were behaving in committee and on the House floor,” state Rep. Jeremy Faison, the chair of the state House Republican Caucus, previously told CNN. “There’s got to be some peace.”

Faison also said that the expulsion proceedings included “due process.” All three members were able to speak in the chamber to defend themselves before the votes.

On Monday, however, Johnson pushed back. “They tried to put on a show that day because they knew the world was watching. … They allowed us to speak more that day than they have in the last three to four years, I would say,” she said.

Jones and Pearson concurred, emphasizing that their goal is to help their concerned constituents.

“This is going to set the tone for the years ahead if it’s not addressed,” Jones said. “And we went to that well [on the floor], calling for them to ban assault weapons. They responded by assaulting democracy.”

Three days after the Nashville school shooting that killed three children and three adults, hundreds reportedly protested for gun control at the state House.

During the March 30 protest, Jones and Pearson used a bullhorn, leading chants on the House floor, which caused a disruption in legislative business. (Johnson, who wasn’t expelled, was not seen using the bullhorn.)

“We had no idea that what we were doing would break a rule that could lead to our possible expulsion or our actual expulsions,” Pearson told ABC News. “This was a tragedy that happened at the Covenant School in Nashville. But instead of addressing the tragedy, the Republican super-majority in Tennessee decided that using our First Amendment right to listen to the thousands of protesters deserved expulsion.”

Jones said that they were “silenced” during the March 30 demonstration and their microphones were cut off, prompting him to bring a bullhorn to speak.

An educator for 27 years before she became a representative, Johnson told ABC News she was present during a school shooting while working as a teacher. She said that she has for years been pushing for more gun regulations but “they get killed in subcommittee immediately on a party-line vote.”

In response to gun violence, state Republicans have touted their efforts at “hardening” school security and increasing mental health resources.

Jones previously told ABC News that the removals were a “lynching of democracy.”

While the expelled lawmakers have said they were disciplined beforehand, losing their committee assignments and ID badge access among other things, Jones believes the situation escalated when Sexton compared the post-Covenant gun control protests to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“What that did is you created this false narrative of violence when our protest was doing the opposite. We were calling for the end of gun violence so that our children can live,” Jones said.

Sexton did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment. On “Fox & Friends” on Friday, he defended the expulsion votes.

“In my house on the floor, since I’m speaker, we have rules, we have decorum, we have a process, we have procedures,” he said.

Although Jones acknowledged that there may have been a rule broken on the House floor, he argued on Monday that he was exercising his duty as a representative: “We were obedient to … the oath we took to our constituents: Article Two, Section 27, of the Tennessee Constitution says that any member of the House or Senate has a right to dissent from and protest against any action or legislation that is injurious to the people.”

Nashville Vice Mayor Jim Shulman told ABC News that his community has been demanding Jones and Pearson be back in the House.

“We’re getting hundreds of emails and lots of phone calls. People want us to send them right back up,” Shulman said. “This is how our democracy works — proper representation. I think there’s an understanding that we need to move promptly and quickly.”

On Monday night, the Nashville Metro Council voted unanimously to reinstate Jones in an interim role until a special election is held.

Separately, a special meeting will be held on Wednesday by the Shelby County Commission to discuss next steps for Pearson.

“I believe they failed to recognize that they didn’t send us to these positions,” Pearson told ABC News on Monday. “It’s the people in our communities who did.”

ABC News’ Faith Abubey, Kiara Alfonseca, Ella McCarthy, Ivan Pereira and Amanda Su contributed to this report.

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