The two young, Black Tennessee state House Democrats whose expulsion sparked a nationwide controversy in April are seeking reelection Thursday.
Justin Pearson and Justin Jones were thrown out of their seats in a move that effectively canceled out the votes of their tens of thousands of constituents. Their expulsions by the Republican majority, which cited breaches of decorum, came after the lawmakers had led a gun control protest from the statehouse floor in response to a Nashville school shooting that left three children and three adults dead. Their protest alongside state Rep. Gloria Johnson led to them being dubbed the “Tennessee Three.” Johnson, a White woman, also faced an expulsion vote, but was not ousted.
Jones and Pearson were quickly returned to their seats by the local officials with the authority to temporarily fill legislative vacancies in their areas – Jones by the Nashville Metropolitan Council four days after his ejection, and Pearson by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in Memphis six days after his removal.
Still, their expulsions triggered special primary and general elections required by Tennessee law, and Republican Gov. Bill Lee set the dates.
Thursday’s special elections in their overwhelmingly Democratic districts are all but certain to make official their return for the remainder of their two-year terms.
Jones, who first won District 52 seat with no Republican opposition in the 2022 general election, faces Republican Laura Nelson, a largely unknown candidate.
Pearson faces no Republican opposition for his District 86 seat, but little-known independent Jeff Johnston is on the ballot. Pearson had initially won his seat in a special election: after the October 2022 death of state Rep. Barbara Cooper, Pearson won a January special Democratic primary and was appointed by commissioners the next day, since he was unopposed in the March special general election.
Meanwhile, in eastern Tennessee, Republican state Rep. Timothy Hill is also heavily favored in a special election to hold onto his seat.
The seat – District 3 – was vacated when Republican state Rep. Scotty Campbell resigned in April amid allegations he had sexually harassed an intern.
Hill, a former state lawmaker, was appointed by the Johnson County Commission to fill the seat temporarily. He won the June primary and is heavily favored against Democratic challenger Lori Love in Thursday’s special election.
Hill represented a previous version of the district, first winning in 2012 and holding office until he ran for Congress in 2020 – a race in which he finished second in the GOP primary.
Democrats have not fielded a candidate in the current or previous iteration of District 3 since 2012, when the party’s nominee lost to Hill by 55 percentage points.
The elections will have no bearing on control of deep-red Tennessee’s Republican-dominated legislature, since the GOP holds a 75 to 24 seat supermajority in the House.