A week ago, Tennessee House Republicans voted to expel two young Black representatives, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson; by one vote, they failed to expel Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white. Jones and Pearson have since been reinstated.
All three Democratic representatives had joined student protesters, who entered the Tennessee Capitol to demand gun safety legislation in the wake of a mass shooting that killed three adults and three children at a Nashville school.
Immediately after the vote to expel him, Pearson didn’t hesitate to tell it like it is: “You cannot ignore the racial dynamic of what happened today, two young black lawmakers getting expelled and the one white woman does not. That is a statement in and of itself.” Johnson, a retired schoolteacher, also suggested race was likely a factor as to why she wasn’t expelled, telling reporters her different outcome “might have to do with the color of our skin.”
Publicly, Republicans reacted to the racism allegations with derision. But on Thursday, The Tennessee Holler, an independent reader-supported website, released leaked audio of a closed-door meeting of House Republicans after the expulsion votes. They angrily confronted one of their colleagues, Rep. Jody Barrett, who had unexpectedly voted against ousting Johnson after pledging that he would.
And they talked a lot about racism.
RELATED STORY: Tennessee House speaker who pushed to expel Democrats needs to answer questions about where he lives
Have a listen to the nearly 10-minute clip The Tennessee Holler released. Captions can be found in the red bar near the center.
Barrett’s Republican colleagues turned on him, saying he should have put aside his reservations about the resolution to expel Johnson, rather than make his colleagues look bad.
Rep. Jason Zachary said that for the last three days all he’s heard from Democrats is “how this is the most racist place … even white supremacist. Good lord, we have to realize they (Democrats) are not our friends ...They destroy the republic and the foundation of who we are.”
And he told Barrett: “Man, you hung us out to dry … This would’ve been bad anyway, but good God … it brought the racism into it because you didn’t stay with us.”
Barrett asserted that he was “pissed off” at the suggestion that he had lied to his colleagues. He explained and defended his sudden change of heart: After reading the expulsion resolution, he didn’t feel it made the case for Johnson to be removed.
Barrett explained his thinking at the time as follows: “I’m concerned I’m going to vote ‘yes’ on a resolution that I know is wrong,” and added that he didn’t want to “put my name on something I knew was gonna be in the annals of history as being wrong.”
Barrett did vote to expel Jones and Pearson. In an NPR interview last week, he pointed out that Johnson was the only one of the three representatives facing expulsion to be represented by legal counsel. He said her lawyers pointed out deficiencies in her expulsion resolution, while House leaders failed to establish what it was that she did to rise to the level of expulsion.
Rep. Scott Cepicky told Barrett he should have raised his concerns about expelling Johnson with party leadership, which “would’ve given us the opportunity to not throw the party under the bus.”
Cepicky was particularly upset that Tennessee Republicans were being made to look racist. (Note: Even before the expulsion votes, Tennessee GOP lawmakers had already built a record of making racist remarks and passing racist legislation.)
A clearly angry Cepicky said, “I’ve been called a racist, a misogynist, a white supremacist more in the last two months than I have my entire life. And by golly, I’m biting my tongue. And I’m telling you, all due respect, those days are wearing thin right now.”
And lest anyone have any doubts, he declared that Republicans consider themselves to be at war with Democrats.
“If you don’t believe we’re at war for our republic, with all love and respect to you, you need a different job,” he told Barrett. “The left wants Tennessee so bad because if they get us, the whole Southeast falls. And it’s game over for our republic. This is not a neighborhood social gathering. We are fighting for the republic of our country right now. And the world is staring at us—are we going to stand our ground?”
And then Cepicky blurted out this gem about one of the reinstated Black lawmakers.
“I’m going to have to swallow this seeing Mr. Jones back up here walking these hallowed halls that the greats of Tennessee stood in. And watch them disrespect this fucking state that I chose to move to. And by golly, it’s got to stop.”
And then he made this remarkable comment which sums up the political cynicism of the current Republican Party. “You got to do what’s right, even if you think it’s wrong.” That, of course, means what’s right by GOP standards.
Jones spoke with CNN’s Jake Tapper Thursday night, after listening to the leaked tape.
He told CNN:
“it was just very surreal to hear the commentary — and to hear from them that they really are reenacting the Civil War. …. So you hear this mentality that is very extreme and very alarming. We’re dealing with people who … don’t believe that someone like me or Rep. Pearson, young black lawmakers, even deserve to be in the legislature.
“But you also hear them fighting amongst each other. I’ve heard from Republicans who are calling on the House Speaker Cameron Sexton to resign. There is a lot of division in their caucus. You heard in that recorded conversation just the infighting and the dysfunction in the Republican Party here in Tennessee because they’ve been controlled by these extreme forces. … And it shows that they’re not free to think for themselves either, that If you diverge from their caucus leadership then you’re seen as an outsider like Rep. Barrett is being seen now.”
As Rep. Cepicky stated, “the world is staring” at Tennessee’s House Republicans. And what do they see? What Rep. Johnson describes: a “mentality that is very extreme and very alarming.”
RELATED STORY: History repeating: Long before Pearson and Jones, Georgia rejected a duly elected Black activist
It's never too early to start talking about the House! Joining us on this week's edition of The Downballot is Inside Elections' Jacob Rubashkin, who offers his thoughts on the overall playing field and a wide range of key contests. Jacob explains why Lauren Boebert might have an easier time of it in her likely rematch, how some candidates have a "special sauce" that allows them to keep winning difficult districts, and why he thinks Mary Peltola is favored for re-election despite Alaska's persistent red lean.
Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also marvel at how the Tennessee GOP scored a remarkable own-goal in booting state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who've now already returned to the chamber with dramatically enhanced profiles; dissect the very obvious ploy by Montana Republicans to tilt the 2024 Senate election their way by changing the primary rules for just that one race; and break down a new Daily Kos Elections analysis of the 23 states that could add protections for abortion rights to their constitutions.