In the wake of protests calling for gun reform at the state Capitol, Tennessee Republicans are seeking to expel three Democratic members of the House for “disorderly behavior” after they led protest chants from the floor of the chamber.
The protests came in the wake of the deadly Covenant School shooting that killed six people, including three children.
On Thursday, the three House Democrats approached the podium between bills without being recognized to speak, a breach of chamber rules. With a bullhorn, Reps. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis led protestors in the galleries in several chants calling for gun reform.
At one point, House leadership likened the trio’s behavior to an “insurrection,” a characterization House Democrats decried last week.
So who are the three Democrats? Here’s what to know about them.
Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville
Johnson, currently represents District 90 in Knoxville. She was first elected to the legislature in 2012 for District 13.
After losing her reelection bid in 2014 and again in 2016 by fewer than 200 votes each time to Republican Eddie Smith, she won the seat back in the 2018 election by more than 2,400 votes.
Amid the latest redistricting, Republican lawmakers redrew District 13 to shift Johnson’s address into District 15, represented by fellow Knoxville Democrat Sam McKenzie. Johnson moved, and won reelection in the newly created District 90 in 2022.
Johnson has long been one of the most outspoken House Democrats, both during legislative debates and on social media. She has regularly drawn the ire of Republicans.
During the 2021 session, Johnson moved her desk into a hallway in the Cordell Hull legislative office building after she was assigned a small, windowless conference room as her office, while her assistant was assigned to a closet down the hall.
Johnson told Knox News she believed the office assignment was a “petty” move by House Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, to punish her for being the only member not to vote to reelect him as speaker.
Sexton replied that members often were displeased with new office assignments, and noted that Johnson’s newly assigned office was twice the size of her first one in 2012.
Johnson, 60, is a retired teacher. She was born in Colorado, moved to Knoxville as a child, graduated from Farragut High School and earned a bachelor of arts degree in education from the University of Tennessee Knoxville.
She has been named to the National Foundation of Women Legislators Women of Excellence. Before being elected to the Tennessee House, Johnson served as Knox County Democratic Party chairwoman. In 2012, she told Knox News she hadn’t been involved in politics before being inspired by President Barack Obama to become politically active.
Justin Jones, D-Nashville
Jones, 27, is one of the youngest members of the Tennessee House of Representatives, elected to represent House District 52 in November 2022.
While a new member, Jones is no stranger to Capitol Hill. Jones has been a vocal advocate for free speech, voting access, Medicaid expansion and representation of working class and minority residents, and a critic of the Republican supermajority.
In 2019, Jones led sit-ins and protests calling for the removal of a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from the second floor of the Capitol.
During one protest, Jones was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and simple assault after throwing a cup of coffee at then-Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and continued to advocate for the bust’s removal. Gov. Bill Lee later announced support for the busts’ removal and after a lengthy approval process by multiple state commissions, the Forrest bust was removed in 2021.
After the death of George Floyd in 2020, Jones help lead the People’s Plaza protests during which demonstrators camped on War Memorial Plaza for 62 nights calling to defund the police and seeking an audience with the governor to discuss racial injustice.
Jones repeatedly led protestors in acts of civil disobedience, defying police security boundaries outside the Capitol (which was closed due to COVID-19 at the time), and at one point blocking the entrance to the Capitol parking garage to prevent lawmakers from leaving the building. He was arrested multiple times.
In response to the People’s Plaza demonstration, state lawmakers enhanced penalties for violating state law that prohibits overnight camping on state property, making it a felony punishable by up to six years in prison.
Jones sponsored bills this year to allow student IDs for voter identification, to impose a 4% tax on Tennesseans’ non-retirement financial securities purchases, revoke the state’s ability to contract with private prisons, require police to only use marked vehicles for non-emergency traffic stops, and to eliminate qualified immunity protections for law enforcement.
He is a policy and activism fellow at the John Lewis Center for Social Justice at Fisk University, and is completing a master’s degree in theological studies at Vanderbilt.
Justin Pearson, D-Memphis
Pearson, 28, first became widely known in Memphis when he co-founded the grassroots organization Memphis Community Against the Pipeline in response to a planned crude oil pipeline that would cut through backyards in South Memphis, particularly in the Boxtown neighborhood.
The work of MCAP, now called Memphis Community Against Pollution, has been credited with stopping the pipeline plans from Plains All American.
In January, he was elected by a significant margin to take the House District 86 seat in an election triggered by the death of educator and state Rep. Barbara Cooper, who died in October.
Upon his election, Pearson became one of the youngest lawmakers in Tennessee.
A native Memphian, Pearson is the fourth son of five boys. Their father is a preacher and mother a teacher. In Memphis, Pearson attended Mitchell High School, where he advocated for textbook access for students. He is also a graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine, where he majored in government and legal and education studies.
Known since college for almost always wearing a suit, Pearson wore a traditional West African dashiki on the House floor on his first day in office. House Republicans criticized his clothing choice, saying on Twitter that Pearson should “perhaps … explore a different career opportunity.”
Pearson has written that his activism and interest in politics was partly driven by the deaths of his grandmothers to “pollution-related illnesses.” As a child, he also spent time in a predominantly white suburb in Virginia, a stark contrast with his later home in southwest Memphis.