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Tennessee lawmakers debated expelling three Democratic House members

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Hundreds of protesters packed into the Tennessee state Capitol today as lawmakers debated expelling three Democratic House members. Republicans say the trio broke decorum by speaking out last week about the shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, which killed three children and three staffers. The days leading up to the expulsion debate have been dramatic and chaotic, and today was no different. Here to catch us up on the latest is Chas Sisk of member station WPLN in Nashville. Hi.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: Hi.

FLORIDO: First, catch us up with what's been happening today - lawmakers in Tennessee debating whether to expel members while lots of protesters were on hand. What more can you tell us?

SISK: Well, it was a dramatic scene. There were protesters in the House galleries, outside the chamber and even outside the Capitol itself because there were so many people trying to get in. Inside the chamber, it's been a very intense debate. The reason Repbulicans gave for trying to throw these lawmakers out is that, a week ago, the three of them took over the House floor because they were upset about the Republican speaker and the fact that he wouldn't let them talk about the Covenant School shooting and gun legislation. Republicans say this was a serious breach of decorum, tantamount to an insurrection, and that requires expulsion. Here's Republican State Senator (ph) Gino Bulso, talking about the first lawmaker to come up for expulsion, Nashville democrat Justin Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GINO BULSO: The gentleman shows no remorse. He does not even recognize that what he did was wrong, so not to expel him would simply invite him and his colleagues to continue to engage in mutiny on the House floor.

SISK: So Jones was suspended, but Republicans did come up one vote short of expelling a second member - that's Gloria Johnson of Knoxville. It should be noted that she is the only legislator among the three who is white, but her defense was that, unlike her two colleagues, she didn't use a bullhorn or break other House rules during the protest. She says she was just standing in support.

FLORIDO: Chas, this move is being described as unprecedented in Tennessee. Why is that?

SISK: Well, expulsions are very rare in Tennessee. It's happened only four times in the past century and a half. The most recent was just last year, and that's when the Tennessee Senate expelled a member convicted of fraud for misusing federal money. Over in the House, a member was expelled in 2016 after he was accused of sexual harassment, and that was preceded by a lengthy investigation by the state's attorney general. And before that, you have to go all the way back to 1980, when a House member was expelled for bribery. It's been noted by these lawmakers' defenders that there have been a lot of questionable behaviors in the years since then. There's been a member who urinated on another's chair and others who are accused of very serious crimes without being censured, much less expelled.

FLORIDO: Now, a lot of people who are opposed to this expulsion are talking about it as an attack on democracy. What is that argument rooted in?

SISK: Well, I think you have to remember - and what you have to understand is these members have been a thorn in the Republicans' side for a while. Jones, the Nashville representative who was expelled already - he was a very prominent political activist here at the Capitol before getting elected last November, and he was even banned for a while from the state Capitol for throwing a Styrofoam cup at the former House speaker. But what they've been up against is a huge Republican supermajority that can cut off debate at a moment's notice, and we've seen that happen more and more frequently over the past several years. So there's been a lot of frustration building up for a while before this action on the House floor. Here's Jones, the Nashville representative, giving his defense just a little bit ago. He stood his ground throughout the proceedings, and he calls the expulsion the latest move in an extended power grab.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN JONES: And so that is why I walked up to the well. I walked up to the well because you were pushing my people back. We brought a megaphone because you cut our people off, and you cut their representatives off from the microphone time after time after time after time after time again. And there comes a time where people get sick and tired of being sick and tired.

SISK: And I think it's really important to note just how few Democrats there are left in Tennessee. I've been covering the legislature since 2009. And back then, there was a pretty even split. Now it's three-quarters Republicans in the House, and all but six of the Senate's 33 members are Republicans, and there are no Democrats who hold statewide office in Tennessee.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with WPLN senior editor Chas Sisk talking about Republican efforts to expel three Democrats from the Tennessee state legislature earlier today. Thanks very much.

SISK: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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
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