State Watch

Leaked audio shows Tennessee GOP infighting over expulsion of Black lawmakers

Newly leaked audio of a meeting between Tennessee Republican lawmakers appears to show tensions and infighting between members after the vote to expel two Black Democratic lawmakers. 

In a historic vote last week, Democratic Reps. Justin Jones (Nashville) and Justin Pearson (Memphis) were voted out of the House after joining a demonstration on the House floor protesting gun violence in the wake of the shooting at a private Christian school in Nashville that killed six people. Their colleague, Rep. Gloria Johnson (Knoxville), also faced expulsion, but hung on to her seat with one vote.

Though Republican members had appeared to be presenting a unified front to the nation, edited audio first published by The Tennessee Holler showed Republicans were angered by one member’s decision to avoid expelling Johnson and outraged by accusations of racism. 

House Majority Whip Johnny Garrett (R-Goodlettsville) said he was “taken aback” by Rep. Jody Barrett’s (R-Dickson) request to question Johnson during the hearing.

“As if that would have made a difference,” Garrett can be heard on the audio. 

“We had the jury already. This obviously wasn’t a trial — but I knew every single one of your vote counts. I knew that we did not have to convince you all,” he continued. “When you came up to me with about two minutes left of Gloria’s final closing and said you didn’t want to do it, I was shocked.” 

Barrett had previously said he chose not to expel Johnson because her attorneys had pointed out “factual inaccuracies” in the resolution to expel her.

“I know what she did. I know that she did break the rules. I know that she deserved to be expelled, but we’ve got to do it right, and that wasn’t right,” Barrett said on the audio. “I went back to my desk. I sat there and had my internal debate on what to do.”

“The bell rings, I am concerned that I am going to vote yes on a resolution I know is wrong,” he added.

But in the audio, Republican members said that this reasoning wasn’t good enough.

“I don’t want to hear why there wasn’t preponderance of the evidence as an attorney — I need to know why you flipped your vote at the last minute,” Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) can be heard saying on the audio.

Rep. Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka) can be heard saying members needed to “do what’s right” even if they don’t personally agree with it.

“You’ve got to do what’s right — even if you think it might be wrong — you’ve got to do what’s right,” Cepicky said. “You’ve got to protect this freaking republic here in Tennessee, or you know what, let’s all go the hell home.”

Zachary can also be heard on the audio saying “Democrats are not our friends” before expressing his anger over being called a “racist.”

“I listened for the last three days to Democrats — Sam McKenzie, [Jesse] Chism, [Antonio] Parkinson — trash us as racists,” Zachary said. “I’ve never had anybody call me a racist and for the last three days all I’ve heard from them is how this is the most racist place — one of them even white supremacists.”

“We have to realize they are not our friends, they can smile and that doesn’t mean I can’t be polite to them but they are not our friends,” he continued. “They destroy the republic and the foundation of who we are or we preserve it. That is the reality of where we are right now and if the last three days have not proven that, then you need to find a new job.”

Democrats around the nation have thrown their support behind the “Tennessee Three,” while Black leaders specifically pointed to the racial undertones of the expulsion of the two Black lawmakers but not the white lawmaker.

Jones said he had been called an “uppity Negro” by a member at one point, and Johnson pointed out the difference between the freshman lawmakers and herself was the color of their skin.

Both Pearson and Jones have been reinstated as interim representatives to the House in unanimous votes by their counties. They both plan to run in the special election in the coming months for their seats. 

The Tennessee GOP Caucus has not responded to The Hill’s request for comment.

Tags Gloria Johnson gun reform Justin Jones Justin Pearson racism Tennessee lawmakers Tennessee Three

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