In the end, Justin Jones was gone for less than 100 hours.
The Metro Council returned Jones to Capitol Hill as the interim House Representative from District 52 four days after he was expelled from the Tennessee General Assembly.
In an extraordinary set of back-to-back, specially called meetings, the Council rushed through a normal four-week process in just 11 minutes, suspending the normal rules and voting unanimously 36-0 to appoint Jones to an interim seat. After gaveling the meeting closed, the Council immediately called to order a second meeting to memorialize the minutes of the meeting and send the notification to the House clerk.
Jones supporters sang and chanted outside the courthouse in a rally dubbed “No Justin, No Peace” and then joined Jones, Council members, clergy and others in a march up Charlotte Pike to the Capitol steps, where Chancellor I’Ashea Myles swore Jones in. Jubilant protestors chanted, “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”
At 5:32 p.m., barely an hour after the Metro Council gaveled to order, Jones returned triumphantly to the House, right arm raised in the air and escorted onto the floor by Gloria Johnson, the only one of the so-called “Tennessee Three” to escape being banished from the General Assembly.
Upon being recognized by Speaker Cameron Sexton, Jones addressed the House from his desk.
“I want to welcome the people back to The People’s House. I want to welcome democracy back to The People’s House,” Jones said as galleries full of supporters cheered while Sexton banged his gavel for order. “I’m hopeful for the days ahead for Tennessee, not because of the actions of this body, but because of the actions of the people out there — the thousands gathered outside this chamber right now — who are calling for something better, who responded to your attacks on democracy with a mass movement for social justice and racial justice and economic justice to restore the heart of our state. And so I want to thank you all, not for what you did, but for awakening the people of this state, particularly the young people.”
Jones was expelled from the Legislature on Thursday for his participation in a March 30 protest on the House floor against gun violence with two other members, Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) and Rep. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis). Jones and Pearson used a megaphone to lead protesters in the House gallery days after the Covenant School shooting claimed the lives of three students and three adults.
Over the course of six hours on April 5, members of the GOP supermajority interrogated the three House members through a series of expulsion resolutions. But the structure of the session, which gave each of the three five minutes to respond, largely backfired as the accused turned their floor time into impassioned speeches for changing Tennessee’s gun laws. With multiple cable networks picking up coverage of the debate and the attendant protestors that filled the Capitol’s halls, Jones, Johnson and Pearson suddenly became national figures as social media labeled them the #TennesseeThree.
The ouster votes were 72-24 to expel Jones and 69-26 to expel Pearson. The vote on Johnson fell one short of the two-thirds required, 65-30, and she remained a member of the House.
Within minutes of his removal, Jones re-activated the fundraising page on his website, something that he was required to turn off during the legislative session. The combination of interest from national coverage and viral social media posts — including the accounts of prominent Democrats like Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy and his million Twitter followers — produced a torrent of campaign cash. One joint fundraising page with Pearson raised more than $400,000 within hours. Various estimates by campaign experts and office holders estimate the total raised between $1 million and $2 million.
More national attention came in the form of Vice President Kamala Harris, who flew to Nashville on Friday for a quickly assembled rally on the campus of Fisk University.
“A democracy says you do not silence the people, you do not stifle the people, you do not turn off their microphones when they are speaking,” Harris said in praise of the three. “These leaders had to get a bullhorn to be heard.”
Even before their expulsion, the wheels already were in motion at the Council to put Jones back in the Legislature. Vice Mayor Jim Shulman already had heard from a number of Council members who wanted Jones returned immediately. Council Attorney Margaret Darby and Shulman, as early as Monday, April 4, had begun exploring what it would take to respond more quickly than the mandated four-week process. Three days later, a few hours after Jones was expelled, a first public meeting was placed on public notice and a second was added later in order to quickly memorialize the meeting minutes.
Meanwhile, public and private efforts ramped up to insure that the proceedings would go smoothly.
Council members took to Twitter to show their support for the plan. Within a few hours, at least half of the Council said they would vote for Jones, including, notably, Delishia Porterfield, who lost to Jones in the Democratic primary last August. Out of the public eye, a small cadre of lobbyists working on their own began to reach out to members. Because of the state’s open meetings act, intermediaries served to connect members with each other to see who, if anyone, might object to the suspension of the rules necessary to return Jones to the Hill quickly.
Over the weekend, Council members were flooded with constituent communication in favor of sending Jones immediately back to the General Assembly. At-Large Councilmember Bob Mendes said he received around 1,000 emails, with only 10 opposed to Jones, while District 35 Councilmember Dave Rosenberg, whose Bellevue seat went for Donald Trump in 2016, said his constituents lined up the same way.
“Ninety-eight emails for, three against from the district. Ten calls for, one against from the district,” Rosenberg said. “On my Facebook post, 34 positive comments, zero negative comments, and 167 positive reactions, one negative reaction.”
As of Monday morning, many of the CMs who were perceived as roadblocks either had come out in support of Jones (Tonya Hancock, Robert Swope) or announced they would not be attending the meeting (Courtney Johnson, who had a previous commitment). The only wildcard entering the session was Jonathan Hall, the District 1 Council member who is the body’s only Black Republican.
Also Monday, Speaker Sexton’s press secretary confirmed Jones and Pearson would be welcomed back to the legislature if Nashville and Memphis returned them.
“The two governing bodies will make the decision as to who they want to appoint to these seats,” read a statement. “Those two individuals will be seated as representatives as the constitution requires.”
Before the start of the Council’s meeting, a standing-room-only affair with TV cameras filling the left side of the chamber and supporters of Jones chanting and singing, Shulman walked around the room and told everyone assembled that the meeting would begin at 4:30 p.m. sharp. The meeting flew by. After voting to suspend the rules, Shulman took nominations and Porterfield entered Jones’ name. In all, the proceeding took 11 minutes. The second meeting, which was gaveled open at 4:43 p.m., lasted just 12 minutes.
Jones will be required to run in a special election later this year to fill the balance of the term.