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Tennessee Democrats expelled over protests win primaries for their old seats

Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, who are Black, were expelled in unprecedented state House votes in April that drew national attention and prompted accusations of racism.
From left, Tennessee state lawmakers Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, walk out of the West Wing of the White House to speak to reporters after meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on April 24, 2023.
Tennessee state Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin J. Pearson, D-Memphis, walk out of the West Wing of the White House after a meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on April 24.Andrew Harnik / AP

The two Democratic state representatives in Tennessee who were expelled by Republicans over gun violence protests won their primary races for their old seats Thursday night.

Justin Jones won in Nashville, and Justin J. Pearson won in Memphis.

Pearson had faced a Democratic challenger, David Page, while Jones ran unopposed. Unofficial results showed that Pearson and Jones won overwhelmingly. Local government officials reinstated both to their seats days after they were expelled in April, but they still had to run to be re-elected to their old seats.

Their victories send a message to Republicans in the state House that the two men continue to enjoy robust support in their districts and could provide a punch of momentum for advocates of gun legislation ahead of a special session scheduled this summer that Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, called specifically to address gun measures.

Jones and Pearson's primary wins Thursday night mark the latest development in an ongoing and chaotic saga within the state government.

After a mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville in March — in which six people, including three 9-year-olds were killed — Jones, Pearson and another House legislator led supporters in a protest on the chamber floor calling for stricter gun safety measures.

Republican House legislators then took the exceptionally rare step of voting to expel Jones and Pearson, who are Black, over their roles in the protests. But the vote to expel the third Democrat — Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white — fell short, leading to accusations of racism

Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raises their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
Justin Jones, left, and Justin Pearson raise their hands with state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the Legislature in Nashville, Tenn., on April 6.George Walker IV / AP

The situation drew national attention to racial dynamics in the Tennessee Legislature, as Democrats in Washington rallied around them.

Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Nashville shortly after the expulsions to meet with the “Tennessee Three,” praising them for “channeling” their constituents’ voices in speaking out against gun violence. President Joe Biden also called them and invited them to visit the White House. He had called their expulsions “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent” in a statement.

Local government officials, however, quickly reinstated both men to their seats, leaving Republicans with nothing to show aside from the bad publicity surrounding their views on guns and their heavy-handed approach toward their Black colleagues.

The Nashville Metropolitan Council voted to return Jones to the Legislature, and members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved reinstating Pearson at a special meeting in Memphis.

Under state law, however, both were required to run for their old seats in primary and general elections.

The special general elections for both seats are scheduled for Aug. 3.

Pearson faces an independent challenger, Jeff Johnston, while Jones will run against Laura Nelson, a Republican. Both districts are heavily Democratic, and Pearson and Jones are widely expected to prevail.