Sole TN House Democrat advised state GOP leader to censure expelled lawmakers

Trump Impeachment
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., speaks as the House Judiciary Committee hears investigative findings in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) Alex Brandon/AP

Sole TN House Democrat advised state GOP leader to censure expelled lawmakers

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Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) urged the Tennessee state House speaker to consider lesser punishments, such as censure or revoking committee assignments, for the Democratic lawmakers that were later expelled.

Cohen is the only Democrat in Tennessee’s Congressional delegation. He has represented his Memphis district in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2007, and before that served in the Tennessee state Senate for 23 years. Cohen penned a letter to Tennessee state House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Cumberland) on Wednesday, one day before the legislature voted to expel two of three Democratic lawmakers for disrupting proceedings to hold a gun reform protest on the House floor, asking he consider alternative responses.


“As a former 25-year state Senator and current Member of Congress, I understand the need for compliance with rules in a legislative body,” Cohen wrote. “The three Democratic Members did violate the rules of decorum, however I believe expulsion to be too extreme a consequence.”

The House lawmaker noted how all three Democratic members — Reps. Justin Jones, Justin J. Pearson, and Gloria Johnson — had already been removed from their committees as a disciplinary response for their March 30 protest on the House floor to demand gun control after a deadly school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee, days before.

Cohen’s request was denied, though reaction to Jones and Pearson’s expulsions, and Johnson being spared, was swift. Jones and Pearson are black, while Johnson is white, something she attributed to her narrowly surviving her expulsion vote.

While state House GOP lawmakers have said that the expulsions were not based on race, a majority have begun supporting proposed votes to reinstate the two expelled Democrats. Both Jones and Pearson have said they would be open to reappointment or running in special elections to return to their seats.

Acknowledging that the “Tennessee Three,” as they’ve become known,” participated in a “breach of decorum,” Cohen wrote in his letter that expelling the members “will result in the disenfranchisement of their constituents, who voted for them. It would also result in the special expense of primary and general elections.”

Speaking about the expulsions after the fact in a CNN appearance on Sunday evening, Cohen expressed his embarrassment at Sexton’s handling of the situation, describing him as a “very important figure” in the state’s “legislative process” who was “very much offended” by the trio’s grandstanding on the state House floor.

“The process was one where, I think it got beyond the speaker,” he told the network of Sexton. “He had no concept or no imagination to think this would go national and the poor image this would put Tennessee in.”


Cohen then called on Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, to step in and ensure Jones and Pearson swiftly get their seats back. Lee has yet to comment on the expulsions. Noting that retired Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Bob Corker (R-TN) were no longer around to handle these difficult political moments, Cohen added, “Bill has to deal with these issues.” He went on to call those “issues” an “embarrassment” for the state.

Cohen explained that while the situation “certainly has a racist appearance. I think it was more of a control issue than racist.” Still, he acknowledged “it was just too heavy handed” of a response.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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