Tennessee’s Political Division Deepen

Tennessee state lawmakers Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis are the latest in a longstanding power struggle between Republicans who control the state’s politics and Democrats in charge of its fast-growing cities. The GOP legislators used their majority power to expel the two representatives last week. Democrats in the metro areas, upset, plan to use their authority to send them straight back, with Nashville-area politicians vowing to act on Monday.

Republican state leaders in recent years have passed an array of measures that override local policies. A recent law, for example, cut the size of Nashville’s Metropolitan Council from 40 to 20 members. Democratic city leaders, in turn, have accused their state counterparts of trampling over the power of locally elected officials. Thursday’s expulsion vote took Tennessee’s schism to a new level, said Nathan Kelly, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “It was quite a power play on the part of Republicans. It’s not something we’ve seen before,” Mr. Kelly said.

Tennessee is an extreme example of a polarized power dynamic playing out in many parts of the U.S., where red states contend with blue cities. This opens an opportunity for the major division, which opens the opportunity for problems. Jones and Pearson, who are Black, were accused of disorderly conduct along with a third Democrat, Gloria Johnson, who is white, for speaking out of turn on March 30. 

The “Tennessee Three,” as their supporters have now dubbed them, interrupted a House session for several minutes to call on their Republican counterparts to act on gun control after a mass shooter killed six people at a private Christian school in Nashville last month. Ms. Johnson, 60 years old, who represents part of Knoxville, kept her seat by one vote. Asked why she thought she wasn’t expelled, Ms. Johnson replied, “It might have something to do with the color of our skin”.

Tennessee Republicans have used their power to redraw voter district maps on the federal and state level. The new maps took aim at deep-blue parts of Nashville. In Knoxville, which traditionally has voted Republican but had a recent influx of new voters who lean the other way, the redrawn map’s lines put Ms. Johnson’s home outside the district she was then representing. She had to move to a new district to be re-elected. This is not how politics should be; citizens and voters should have their voices heard.


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