An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Tenn. GOP efforts to remove 2 lawmakers may have lasting effects on state politics


In this country, both of the Democratic Party lawmakers expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives will be back in the state Capitol in Nashville today. Justin J. Pearson received enough votes to be reinstated yesterday by Shelby County, which he represents and which includes Memphis.


JUSTIN J PEARSON: Nashville thought they could silence democracy. But they didn't know the Shelby County Commission was filled with some courageous leaders.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about this now with Chas Sisk, senior editor at WPLN in Nashville. Good morning.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. So talk me through this. It's a Republican-dominated Legislature. The two Democrats who were voted out got sent right back by - in effect, by their constituents, by the local governments that they - in areas that they represent. What's the situation now in the Legislature?

SISK: Well, you know, Democrats definitely have gotten a little bit of a boost from all of this. And I think in terms of legislation, what that's going to translate into is some serious consideration for a red flag law in Tennessee, which we lack here. And, you know, it's not just because Democrats have a lot more energy behind them. There are a lot of Republican voters in Tennessee that support red flag laws and have for a while, but there just hasn't been any political will at the Capitol to take on the gun lobby. And, you know, what really has changed all that is the Covenant School shooting a little over two weeks ago. You have people marching to the Capitol just about every day now and not just Democrats. You know, that's really what this expulsion was all about, those demonstrations.

And you should also keep in mind that this was a school that has ties to a lot of people in the Tennessee Republican Party. Governor Bill Lee's wife was a friend of one of the teachers who was killed there, for instance.

INSKEEP: Chas, I feel that you're telling me that this protest that got them expelled - and now they're back again - may have worked or at least had some effect. You're saying that the shooting, the protests that have followed the shooting, may have given some momentum for a red flag law that wouldn't happen otherwise. Is that what you're saying?

SISK: Yeah. I think that's what I'm saying. Between the - those - the backlash to these protests - to the expulsion and everything like that, I think it all adds up to a bit more momentum for some legislative change.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the Tennessee Legislature, which maybe is representative of the country in a way, Republican dominated. But is it divided in a partisan way the rest of the country is?

SISK: Yeah. I mean, and that's been happening more and more in recent years, the division in the Legislature. There's a lot of frustration among the Democrats about how the Tennessee House has been run, particularly the cutting off of debate, and that's been building over the last several years. And what you've seen on the floor is that when Democrats do actually get the mic, that they tended to be a lot louder. You know, I'm not surprised that these two lawmakers were ones that were in the Republican crosshairs, and there was such a backlash to the demonstration on the floor a couple of weeks - or a week or so ago.

You know, Justin Jones, I started covering him about a decade or so ago when he was a college freshman protesting at the Capitol. Republicans really have not much liked him for a while. You know, Justin J. Pearson, he's a bit newer to the scene, but there - he's been met with a lot of hostility since he came up there this year. You know, they're two of the most vocal Democrats in the Tennessee House, and, you know, that makes them two of the most prominent Democrats in the state of Tennessee.

INSKEEP: You give me the impression that perhaps they were expelled not just for what they did the other day but for the fact that they have a long record that Republicans don't like and are frustrated with. Is that right?

SISK: Yeah. I think that's right. And, you know, I think that's a lot to do with the way Tennessee is structured. You know, the Legislature is one of the few state offices where the voters really have a say. The governor's office is really the only one in which it's directly elected. So, you know, these are some pretty prominent voices in Tennessee as a result of what's been happening here at the Capitol.

INSKEEP: Chas Sisk, really appreciate the analysis. Thanks so much.

SISK: Yeah, my pleasure.

INSKEEP: He's senior editor at WPLN in Nashville.


Chas joined WPLN in 2015 after eight years with The Tennessean, including more than five years as the newspaper's statehouse reporter.Chas has also covered communities, politics and business in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Chas grew up in South Carolina and attended Columbia University in New York, where he studied economics and journalism. Outside of work, he's a dedicated distance runner, having completed a dozen marathons