Home U.S. News Tennessee’s Legislature Can’t Move Past the Bitter Clashes of 2023

Tennessee’s Legislature Can’t Move Past the Bitter Clashes of 2023

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Tennessee’s Legislature Can’t Move Past the Bitter Clashes of 2023

When the Tennessee legislature convened on Thursday, custom dictated that Representative Justin Jones, the Nashville Democrat who was expelled last year, take his turn to lead the House in the Pledge of Allegiance.

He quietly declined, and once again drew the ire of Republicans. Saying that Mr. Jones’s behavior was a “disgrace,” State Representative Jeremy Faison, a member of the Republican leadership, went so far as to call for his resignation.

Mr. Jones, who has risen in national prominence by sparring with the state’s Republican supermajority, later responded that he “couldn’t bring myself to join their performative patriotism,” given the party’s support for former President Donald J. Trump and what Mr. Jones described as an effort to “undermine liberty and justice for all.”

It was one of the clearest signs yet that the animosity from 2023, when Republicans expelled Mr. Jones and State Representative Justin Pearson of Memphis for leading a gun control protest on the House floor, had spilled into the new year.

And the festering tensions are surfacing even before lawmakers tackle the major work of the year, including substantial changes to the budget and a proposed overhaul of state education funding.

It is, in part, a political hangover of the legislature’s own making. When called back for a brief session last summer to respond to the Covenant School mass shooting in Nashville, Republicans punted on taking up most legislation until their return in January.

With their supermajority, Republicans can easily swat away Democratic objections to their agenda, including restrictions on L.G.B.T.Q. rights, a statewide private school voucher plan and proposals that would further loosen gun laws in the state.

That ironclad grip has pushed both Democrats and activists to turn to more aggressive tactics to draw attention to their positions, even though there is not always agreement over how far those efforts should go.

Under the leadership of Speaker Cameron Sexton, Republicans have not shied away from exacting punishment against opponents, locking the two parties in a cycle of protest and retribution that has galvanized political bases but done little for productivity or bipartisanship.

The dynamic is inextricably linked to Mr. Jones and Mr. Pearson, who were quickly reappointed to their seats but now command a national audience and thousands of fund-raising dollars. (State Representative Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, who joined their protest but narrowly escaped expulsion by a single vote, has also announced a U.S. Senate bid.)

And while Mr. Pearson has raised objections in speeches from the floor, Mr. Jones has maintained the combative stance that stems back to his activist days long before his election to the General Assembly.

Republicans have been quick to tamp down on anything they deem to be a disruption, including through a new rule that allows them to vote to silence, for the remainder of the day, any lawmaker who is ruled out of order. The rule, so far, has been used against only one lawmaker: Mr. Jones, after he described Mr. Sexton as “drunk with power.”

On Wednesday, Republicans ejected an audience member who live-streamed a committee debate on Pride flags, or any flag other than the American and Tennessee flags, being displayed in schools.

“It’s not something that I’m hoping that we have to deal with a lot,” said State Representative Kirk Haston, the Republican who oversaw the removal of the audience member, who cursed at multiple lawmakers as he left. Mr. Haston added that “emotions can run high.”

Some lawmakers and members of the public have also been taken aback by a new ticketing system that drastically limits how many people can watch in the galleries above the chamber.

But a spokesman for Mr. Sexton, Connor Grady, said that “the new policy allows more Tennesseans from all across the state the opportunity to sit in the gallery and for every member of the General Assembly to give access to their constituents.”

Democratic lawmakers, some of whom have quietly sought to soothe over tensions, have continued to defend their party members and formally complained about an underrepresentation of their caucus on key committees.

They have also raised alarm at multiple Republican-backed measures that would prevent expelled lawmakers from swiftly returning to the General Assembly, either by election or reappointment by their local governing bodies. (Asked on Thursday, Mr. Sexton declined to weigh in on those bills.)

It is unclear whether those measures will ultimately become law, but Democrats have warned against overriding the will of a legislator’s constituents.

“I think this is kind of a slippery slope,” said Representative Vincent Dixie, a Democrat who was the only lawmaker to oppose one of the measures in a committee vote on Tuesday.

Speaking afterward, he added, “Honestly, we’ve moved past the point of no return.”

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