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Memphis sends Justin J. Pearson back to the Tennessee House days after GOP lawmakers ousted him

<i>Karen Pulfer Focht/Reuters</i><br/>
Karen Pulfer Focht/Reuters

By Dakin Andone and Ray Sanchez, CNN

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday voted to confirm the reappointment of Justin J. Pearson to the Tennessee House of Representatives, sending him back to fill the House District 86 seat as an interim representative.

The vote to return Pearson to his seat — vacated last Thursday when the GOP-dominated chamber expelled the state representative after he and two other Democrats called for gun reform on the chamber floor — came after the board voted to suspend a rule that would have required a waiting period between his nomination and confirmation.

The vote to appoint Pearson passed 7-0.

“You cannot expel hope,” a triumphant Pearson told cheering supporters at the boisterous meeting Wednesday. “You can’t expel our voice and you sure can’t expel our fight. We look forward to continuing to fight, continuing to advocate.”

Shelby County commissioners voted Wednesday on appointing Pearson to the House District 86 seat, which the 28-year-old vacated last week when he was forced out in a two-thirds majority vote by the GOP-dominated body after he and two Democratic colleagues participated in a demonstration calling for gun reform on the chamber floor.

“Democracy will win in the end,” Pearson told CNN after being reappointed Wednesday.

A rally in support of Pearson took place about a mile away at the National Civil Rights Museum before the Shelby County Board of Commissioners met at 1:30 p.m. local time to take up the matter of his vacant seat.

“The status quo needs changing and the status quo needs you,” Pearson told the crowd before the meeting.

Later, Pearson raised his fist in the air as supporters cheered him before the vote at the meeting.

“We’ve got a problem in Nashville and it’s called a promise that they’re holding onto with the status quo. Their allegiance is to the way that things are. Their allegiance is to business as usual. Their allegiance is to the National Rifle Association.”

Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones, who are Black, were expelled, though Jones was reinstated as an interim member and returned to the state House victorious Monday, following a unanimous vote by the Nashville Metropolitan Council. Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is White and participated in the demonstration on the floor of the House, survived the vote last week and kept her seat.

Tennessee law allows local legislative bodies to appoint interim House members to fill the seats of expelled lawmakers until an election is held, and the vote to appoint Pearson had been expected to follow a similar process to Jones’ earlier this week.

“The Republican-led supermajority of the Tennessee General Assembly sought to have a political lynching of three of its members because we spoke out of turn against the status quo of the government, after the tragic deaths of six people in the shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville,” Pearson said at an Easter Sunday service at The Church of the River in Memphis.

In a statement over the weekend, Shelby County Commission Chairman Mickell Lowery said he believed Pearson’s expulsion “was conducted in a hasty manner without consideration of other corrective action methods.”

“I am certain that the leaders in the State Capitol understand the importance of this action on behalf of the affected citizens here in Shelby County, Tennessee and that we stand ready to work in concert with them to assist with only positive outcomes going forward,” Lowery’s statement said.

‘A clear message’

The lawmakers’ expulsions came as the long-simmering debate over guns in America boiled over in Tennessee following a mass shooting last month at a Nashville Christian school that left six people dead, including three 9-year-old children.

Jones, Pearson and Johnson took to the state House floor to advocate for gun control, using a bullhorn to address their colleagues and demonstrators who had gathered at the Capitol.

Republicans accused the trio of “knowingly and intentionally” bringing “disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives” without being recognized to speak, and they filed three resolutions seeking their ousters. The vote to remove Jones and Pearson happened last Thursday — a move the expelled representatives called undemocratic and racist.

On Monday, Jones and his supporters marched the four blocks from City Hall to the Capitol after a resounding 36-0 vote by Nashville council members, reinstating him as an interim representative for House District 52.

“Today we are sending a resounding message that democracy will not be killed in the comfort of silence,” Jones said. “Today we send a clear message to Speaker (of the House) Cameron Sexton that the people will not allow his crimes against democracy to happen without challenge.”

“To anyone who has doubted the South, anyone who’s doubted the power of Tennesseans to advocate for an end to gun violence, anybody who’s doubted the movement to end assault weapons — anybody who’s doubted the movement, here’s your answer: The movement still lives,” Pearson said Monday as he stood on the steps of the Capitol alongside Jones.

Sexton earlier indicated he would not stand in the way of the appointments should local officials choose to send Jones and Pearson back to the chamber.

“The two governing bodies will make the decision as to who they want to appoint to these seats,” a spokesperson for the speaker’s office told CNN on Monday. “Those two individuals will be seated as representatives as the constitution requires.”

Upon his return — and in the wake of not only the mass shooting in Nashville, but another shooting Monday at a bank in Louisville, Kentucky — Jones indicated he would continue to call for gun reform legislation.

The Louisville shooting is a “painful moment of recognition that our legislators and people like Cameron Sexton and the Republican Party in Tennessee and across the South in this country are not doing nearly enough to prevent guns from getting in the hands of people and doing all of the holistic work of gun prevention that is necessary in places across our communities,” Pearson told CNN.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the day of the vote to reappoint Pearson. It was Wednesday.

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