NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson never guessed he'd be expelled for leading a gun control protest on the House floor after a deadly school shooting. Nor did he predict that he'd be propelled into the national spotlight, placing his state at the forefront of the conversation on gun regulations.
Activism had yielded results for years for the 28-year-old son of a preacher and a teacher. At age 15, he prodded a school board to get his Memphis high school more textbooks. After college, he fought a planned oil pipeline through wetlands and poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city’s south. The project was canceled in 2021.
The push to boot Pearson and two other Democrats has kept national attention fixed on reliably Republican Tennessee. They hope the pressure from thousands of students, parents and others who have protested at the Capitol for gun control can yield quick change. GOP Gov. Bill Lee has called for legislation to keep firearms away from people who could harm themselves or others. But Republican lawmakers have been noncommittal, and want to adjourn soon, possibly this week.
Meanwhile, it's hard not to look ahead for Tennessee Democrats. The attention has attracted the kind of campaign cash that has eluded them for years.
“I think there’s a new awakening that’s happening,” Pearson told The Associated Press in an interview Monday. “And we’re going to be able to consistently build on that, because the issues that we’re fighting aren’t going away, and the people who are fighting aren’t going away, either.”
Pearson was expelled for protesting on the House floor alongside a fellow Democratic Black lawmaker, Nashville’s Rep. Justin Jones. Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, was spared by one vote. Jones and Pearson have since been restored.
Pearson said his activism and oratory came partly “through osmosis” — from his mother, an English teacher, and his father, a preacher — as he “grew up financially poor, but spiritually rich.”
He briefly attended school in a wealthy Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., and realized that, by comparison, the school he attended in Memphis lacked resources. On his return, Pearson said, he held up his mother’s bachelor degree and his algebra book before school board officials, asking how students could ever get a degree without enough textbooks. Days later, he showed up at school to more books.
“I remember walking in, and it’s just like, ‘Oh, so this is change?’” Pearson said. “You take an issue, you raise your voice, you explain the injustice, you fight for it.”
Pearson attended Bowdoin College in Maine, then returned to Memphis and helped lead a winning fight against the planned oil pipeline through southwest Tennessee and north Mississippi. The Memphis City Council was considering an ordinance to make it harder for the company to build the pipeline, but no vote occurred before the cancelation.
Republican state lawmakers noticed.
In 2022, they largely stripped the ability of local governments to stop oil and gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Pearson, who lobbied against the bill, helped secure some amendments. But he said the GOP's legislative supermajority showed its “punitive” attitude toward left-leaning cities.
“The problem with that entire legislative process was the pipeline was canceled before we passed any laws locally," Pearson said. “And so, it’s trying to have an overcorrection to something that wasn’t a correction.”
Pearson subsequently won a primary election for the seat left open after Rep. Barbara Cooper died. With no general election opponent, local officials installed him early on an interim basis.
Republican legislative leaders chastised the Democrats targeted for removal for breaches of decorum and rules — House Majority Leader William Lamberth said Thursday that “you can't step into the well, whip out a bullhorn and start yelling at folks.”
Pearson said the move represented more than a miscalculation.
“I think the Republican Party of Tennessee was hoping that expelling us would somehow expel our fight, and they were wrong,” Pearson said. “It wasn’t just a miscalculation. It was the result of anti-democratic behavior that has become aligned to this Republican Party.”
A day after the expulsions, Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy from Connecticut said he had helped to raise $425,000 for Pearson and Jones. It’s unclear how high the amount has grown nearly two weeks later.
Tennessee's Democratic Party on Friday told prospective donors it had raised almost $400,000 in one week.
Sitting lawmakers can’t take campaign cash during legislative sessions, but Pearson and Jones were able to go on a dayslong fundraising spree at the height of their popularity because Republican lawmakers kicked them out. It's unclear how much they raised.
Pearson said the wave of attention and campaign donations presents “a responsibility, an obligation and an opportunity.”
The Republican supermajority in the House has allowed the GOP to waive rules to fast-track certain bills, cut off debates and more. Johnson, the third lawmaker targeted for expulsion, said Democrats must try to elect enough progressive lawmakers to affect change.
“We’ve got to get 10 seats,” Johnson told the AP last week. “We need to get 10 folks who are going to speak up, and stand up, and not bow down to the supermajority.”
Democrats have struggled to recalibrate since Phil Bredesen lost to Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn in 2018 by nearly 11 percentage points, despite being a popular, moderate former governor. Only Nashville-Davidson County and Memphis' Shelby County voted against Gov. Lee's 2022 reelection.
Pearson wants to see more organizations and resources in the state focused on preventing gun violence and boosting other progressive issues, along with the “political activation” of young people.
“I’m hopeful that we will be able to use resources to keep our fight going and to get progressive voices in the state of Tennessee and the state Legislature,” Pearson said, “because there are a lot of people in our communities who can speak no more because they suffered from the effects of gun violence.”