If Only It Was Easy

“Someone else had come out with that old line about winning not being everything. Probably Emilia, that’s exactly the sort of thing she liked to believe. And then one of us replied … perhaps even me, I’m not sure … one of us said, Of course winning is everything. Why else do you think we call ourselves the human race?”
Christopher J. Yates, Black Chalk

It’s been an interesting one around these parts of late. In case you haven’t heard, the Tennessee General Assembly expelled three members yesterday. How you feel about it, unfortunately, likely falls on which side of the political aisle you sit on.

Those on the left scream, that it’s all fabricated and those expelled legislators did nothing but exercise their first amendment rights. To paraphrase the words of one, Justin Jones, he was “fighting for your kids”.

Those on the other side of the aisle holler that these three fostered their own version of January 6th, and threatened to shut down the government. Those actions warrant expulsion.

It’s all hyperbolic and geared toward fundraising.

What? You haven’t gotten at least 5 emails telling you how important you are and how it’s more important now than ever to dig into that checkbook and contribute? Check your spam folder.

We’ve descended into a world where sound bites and one-upmanship are favored over statesmanship and solutions. Our individual pain routinely supersedes our collective pain. We have no shame in hijacking the tragic deaths of 7 people in order to push our desired political agenda. Protests are planned before funerals.

For the record, here’s the definition of insurrection:

An organized and usually violent act of revolt or rebellion against an established government or governing authority of a nation-state or other political entity by a group of its citizens or subjects; also, any act of engaging in such a revolt.

In my eyes, last week’s events meet the criteria of the first, but definitely not the latter. But much like I missed the term “violent” in the explanation, others are missing “usually”, or confusing it with “always”.

Those gathered in protest were peaceful, and I don’t believe that there was ever a sniff of the scent of violence in the air.

Unlike in 2001 when protests broke out at the Capitol over the threat of a state income tax. Activities reached such a level at that time that Governor Sunquist was forced to release a public statement,

“State employees, legislators, and law enforcement officers should be able to do their jobs in a safe, reasonable way. I am particularly critical of some radio talk show hosts and at least one legislator who encouraged disruptive behavior and destructive acts. I hope the budget debate will continue but in a calm, reasonable way. My top priority has [been], and
continues to be, the welfare of Tennessee’s children.”

So it is probably a good idea to employ some perspective when tossing the word “insurrection” around. Sound advice to me as well, I’ve been a little loose with the definition myself.

But I remain baffled that we have rules of conduct for the office, the classroom, and the courtroom, yet somehow holding the same expectations for the House floor are antiquated and racist. Next time you are in court try emulating the conduct of the three lawmakers in question. Let me know how that works out.

I expect I’ll never get another call from the school telling me my child is disrupting class. If I do, I’ll just tell the teacher that he’s just excising his First Amendment rights and I expect him to be accommodated.

We all have passions, society can’t function is those passions are expressed in whatever manner we choose, whenever.

Another word we hear tossed around without impunity is “fascism”. For the record:

A governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.

First off, Thursday’s hearing for the three lawmakers lasted the better part of the day, I doubt that in Iran, Syria, or even China, you’d be extended such a courtesy. Russian courts are mysteriously backed up while dissidents are locked up indefinitely, or killed.

But let’s forget that for a minute and ask – who is serving in the role of dictator here? Speaker Sexton? Majority Leader Lamberth? Governor Lee?

Per The Tennessean, Jones told lawmakers during his hearing, “Your extreme measure is an attempt to subvert the will of voters who democratically elected us as representatives to speak and to passionately fight for them.”

Which voters is he talking about?

Tennessee recently held elections in which Sexton garnered 82% of the vote in his district with 19,655 votes. William Lambeth won his district with 78% and 13,875 votes. Governor Lee secured 65% and 1,129,390 votes.

By contrast, Justin Jones ran unopposed in the general election, securing 8587 votes. The Democrat primary was a little tighter, he received 53% of the vote and 1931 votes. Justin Pearson won the Special Democratic primary for District 86 with 1235 votes, in the general election he received 443. Gloria Johnson secured 58% of the votes cast in her race with 8465 votes.

You can parse these vote totals how you will, to tell any story you want to tell. I wouldn’t have voted for any of the three Republicans, but the bottom line is that a lot of Tennesseans think that they are doing a good job representing them. That may not be what is wished for, but it is reality.

Luckily there is a way to address that. Next year is another round of elections. Hopefully, Democrats will run better candidates, who run better campaigns.

To quote a dear friend, “We are fighting about drag queens, while I can’t drive 10 blocks without hitting a dozen potholes.”

The best way to tell Republicans to focus on the important stuff is to vote them out of office.

So again, a little perspective. And now a little history.

Tennessee Democrats had control of the governorship, the state’s congressional delegation, and both chambers of the General Assembly as recently as 2006. In 2008, Republicans took both the state House and the Senate. They’ve held control since, for reasons, we can endlessly debate.

If you are in the minority – trust me I know all about the minority, because it’s where I live – you often feel like you never get heard. This is true for whoever is in the minority. The Republicans certainly felt that way in the 90s.

Whoever holds the gavel, is usually a bit of a dick. They need to make sure that their party’s bills get through while keeping the minority in the minority. Before Sexton, it was Glen Casada who ran the show like a mafia don. Definitely a dick.

While the Democrats were in the majority, Jimmy Naifeh served as the longest-running Speaker of the House. A tenure that lasted for 20 years. Naifeh had a well-earned reputation as a ruthless political fighter. Republicans accused him of stealing their ideas and passing them off as his.

He didn’t earn his reputation by allowing ample opportunity for Republicans to speak. and trust me, no one was coming to him and saying, “Jimmy, you really need to be much nicer to the Republicans. They probably have some good intentions.”

As one former House Republican remembers:

“Jimmy Naifeh was first elected Speaker when I was a freshman. He ruled the House with an iron fist fiercely defending the institution and utilizing the House rules, which were democratically voted on and passed by the majority of the members. Speaker Naifeh was also politically rigid and protected his Democrat majority by sometimes ruthlessly wielding his gavel to protect his caucus or to punish the opposition but always operated within the rules of the House. Case in point, Speaker Naifeh led the redistricting effort in 1992 to place 12 sitting GOP members into six newly politically gerrymandered districts to reduce the number of GOP members. We didn’t like it, but he played within the rules to benefit his Democrat caucus.”

In 2008, Republicans won the majority of the state House, winning 50 seats and the Democrats holding 49. This marked the first time the GOP held a majority in the Tennessee House since 1971, and the first time both the House and Senate had Republican majorities since Reconstruction. Naifeh was done as Speaker, but the Republicans’ narrow majority in the House did not allow them to elect their preferred Speaker. While 49 Republicans voted for Jason Mumpower, the 49 Democrats and Republican Representative Kent Williams voted for Williams to succeed Naifeh as Speaker.[2]

Naifeh, who was chairing the House for the last time, helped to engineer Williams’ election by instructing the House clerk to change the procedure from the normal practice of conducting a roll call of the members in alphabetical order, instead calling first on the Democrats, then on the Republicans. This allowed Williams to vote last, so that before he voted he knew that his vote for himself would be the deciding vote. Pretty clever. 

My point is, that political gamesmanship has always been at play, it’s just more heightened today, and maybe sometimes a little meaner. All the more reason to protect the process more than ever.

So in describing that day of the protest, here are Brother Jones’s words, per The Tennessean:

“This is what we’ve been challenging all session, was a very toxic, racist work environment where we are not even allowed to speak,” he continued. “That’s why we went to the well because the speaker wouldn’t call on us (and) he turned off our microphones. He ruled us out of order any time we brought up the issue of gun violence. When I went outside to support the protesters he turned off my voting machine so I couldn’t even cast a vote on the House floor.”

The Lookout has this quote, “It feels like these lawmakers were used as a scapegoat because our Tennessee General Assembly didn’t have the courage to pass strong gun laws and stand up to the NRA,” said Brenda Gilmore, a former state senator, and representative, speaking at a news conference held by the Nashville NAACP.

So naturally, I went looking for the legislation that they introduced. Since the House isn’t a social club, where members just kinda talk about whatever comes to their head when it comes to their head, I figured at least one of them had some legislation they were trying to get passed.

Nope, no legislation. Just a desire to talk.

None of the three had introduced any legislation on guns or school safety since the start of the session in January. So if gun laws and school safety were such a priority for their constituents, why did they wait until tragedy struck before taking up the subject?

It’s not that Johnson and Jones hadn’t filed any bills, they had plenty. It’s just that none of those bills even remotely pertained to guns or school safety.

To be fair, Johnson had a “red flag” bill, HB 1873, she pushed in 2020 and 2021, that failed to pass out of the House. She wasn’t reintroducing it this year, until post-Covenant School shooting.

That’s why Representative Mark White (R-Memphis) on the floor Thursday asked Justin Jones, “Where have you been.” Because palpable or not, a primary focus of this year’s General Assembly, has been school safety.

You may not like their solutions, or find them particularly effective, but at least they weren’t waiting for a tragedy to start the process. They were also following the diction of their constituents.

Now, I don’t want to paint too flattering a picture here either. Over the last several years, Republicans have passed several laws that made it more permissible for Tennessee citizens to carry firearms. Jones and colleagues argue that these laws were passed at the behest of the National Rifle Association (NRA), once a political behemoth but now on the downslide.

These days, while the NRA has been severely weakened, they are not without influence, as an article in the Washington Post reveals:

But the NRA’s decline has not reduced the potency of guns as an animating force in right-wing politics. A Gallup survey last year found that support for stricter gun control had fallen five percentage points to 52 percent, the lowest percentage since 2014. Americans disagree on whether stricter gun control would reduce mass shootings, and policy proposals tend to break down along partisan lines, according to the Pew Research Center.

It’s safe to say, that Jones, Johnson, and Pearson may have believed in their solution, but it’s not clear that everyone in Tennessee shared their conviction. Personally, while I’m certainly not a gun guy, I don’t believe it is possible to ban anything, be it drag queens, books, or guns.

In an age where functioning AR-15s can be printed on a 3D printer, or constructed with parts available through mail-order, it is going to take more than banning the legal sale of firearms. Even if Tennessee were to ban firearms, we are still bordered by 6 states, some of which show no intention of following suit. We can look to Chicago and see how that plan plays out.

A recent report by Chicago Public Television shows, “Chicago police have recovered 12,716 illegal firearms in 2022 for an average of more than 34 per day. That included 1,073 assault weapons — a 54% increase over 2021 — and more than 750 unregistered, privately made ghost guns.”

Per an NPR report on Ghost Guns, Alex McCourt, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies firearm policy says:

Moving forward, McCourt said that policymakers should take a closer look at 3D-printed ghost guns, which were not the focus of the final rule.

There’s a question of whether the latest efforts to fight the proliferation of ghost guns made with kits could lead to increased production of ghost guns made through 3D-printing, McCourt said.

“We’ve seen that technology moves very quickly and policy tends to move a little bit more slowly,” he said. “As these new technologies pop up, policy needs to be able to respond much more quickly than it has.”

A 2021 New York Times article says:

Ghost guns — untraceable firearms without serial numbers, assembled from components bought online — are increasingly becoming the lethal weapon of easy access for those legally barred from buying or owning guns around the country. The criminal underground has long relied on stolen weapons with filed-off serial numbers, but ghost guns represent a digital-age upgrade, and they are especially prevalent in coastal blue states with strict firearm laws.

We really need to stop having 1995 conversations about 2023 problems.

When Jones, Johnson, and Pearson strode to the well and began directly addressing the crowds, in arguably an inflammatory manner, without being recognized by the chair, they were saying that their opinion and hypothetically those of their constituents superseded the agenda and beliefs of the constituents of the other 94 districts in the state. That is the very definition of undemocratic.

They’ve argued that they were never given an opportunity to speak, but I disagree. I watched a lot of committee meetings this session and both Jones and Johnson spoke frequently. Jones often went off topic or refused to concede a point, and as a result, he didn’t get to talk as much as he might have liked, but, as I mentioned before, the job of the Speaker or chair is to move the process along.

Critics argue:

Tennessee Republicans are all about decorum when it benefits them. Their decorum wasn’t violated when former Rep. David Byrd was credibly accused of sexual assault by girls he coached in high school basketball, standing by him until he declined to run for reelection in 2022.

They didn’t worry about decorum when three Republican legislators — former Speaker of the House Glen Casada, former Rep. Robin Smith and sitting Rep. Todd Warner — had their homes and offices raided by the FBI in Jan. 2021, and continued to support Smith and Casada until they were indicted of federal charges of fraud and money laundering.

They didn’t seem to care when former Sen. Brian Kelsey was indicted on five counts of federal campaign finance violations in Oct. 2021. Kelsey resigned from his seat as Senate Judiciary Chair, but there was no mention of expulsion.

Surely our critical thinking instincts haven’t eroded to the point that we can’t see the difference between those incidents and what happened last week. Every one of those transpired outside of the chambers. Every one of them happened when the House was out of session. The actions of The Tennessee Three halted the session and prevented the House from doing the people’s business.

The procedural rules that will govern how business is conducted in the State House are voted on every year at the start of session. Jones and Johnson presumably agreed to those rules. Pearson wasn’t present at that time but surely was briefed on them before being sworn in.

Arguably every one of the bills up for discussion last week was important to some constituents, somewhere. What the three did, is shove past those constituents while deeming their concern inconsequential and demanding their priorities be addressed.

In other words, they engaged in the very behavior they felt was being directed at them. So who gets to decide what a priority is and what is not? Who decides the order of consideration?

Is it the 1500 people outside the statehouse holding signs demanding, or is it the 2.5 million people that showed up and voted last November, equally demanding action?

The bottom line is, Republicans had to take some action. Action that was not just strong enough to deter those accused from repeating their actions, but to prevent others from emulating them. The other reality was, nothing delivered was going to be palpable to Democrats.

Unfortunately, Representative Brian Richy’s (R-Knoxville) attempt to show grace to a fellow Knoxvillian, backfired and, inadvertently, set the stage for charges of racism. But let’s not forget, that it was another Black man, Sargent of Arms Bobby Trotter, who the three ignored as he tried to get them to cease their actions. It took a Black woman, the visibly agitated Representative Karen Camper (R-Memphis), to get them to leave the

Sadly, and for me, nearly unforgivable, these events played out with the funerals of the 7 people killed – 3 adults, 3 kids, and the shooter – transpiring in the background.

So what happens next?

The two young men dismissed are likely to return to the House come Monday. Though in Memphis, that is in question, as local leaders float the possibility of House leaders punishing Memphis should they reappoint Pearson. A possible scenario, but also a convenient cover to go another direction.

At least 29 members of Nashville’s 40-seat Metro Council said they plan to reappoint Jones and send him back to the Tennessee House of Representatives, maybe as soon as Monday. I’m not what they hope to accomplish with that move other than to increase tensions between the state and the city.

It’s not likely that the House supermajority would reseat Jones upon arrival. Since he wouldn’t be on any committees, I’m not sure how much representation his constituents would be getting if he was restored to the seat.

Yea, I know I keep thinking that this is about constituents and not the ego of city and state leaders. Ironically, the voices leading the charge for reinstatement, CMs Bob Mendes and mayoral candidate Freddie O’Connell, are the same ones that were most vocal in opposition to Nashville hosting the Republican National Convention, which served to ignite a simmering feud between blue Nashville and red Tennessee.

If you don’t think the reseating of Jones will have consequences that will affect our schools, you are not paying attention. Legislation for expanding vouchers and a new state education funding formula are already on the table, and if TCAP results aren’t incredibly high, they’ll be even more action coming.

These supposed city leaders are urging action that will do nothing but buy new yachts for attorneys.

Back in college, I started a fight one night from the back seat of a Camaro. Bet you are not surprised that didn’t turn out well. I got the crap kicked out of me. The lesson learned is don’t start fights from the back of a Camaro. Run your mouth after you’ve moved to a position of strength. Nashville keeps starting fights from the back seat of a Camaro.

The smarter play would be to appoint someone like school board member Christine Buggs. Buggs has served two terms as chair, so she understands the job of government and is the niece of long-time state representative Harold Love. She co-founded the Equity Alliance with State Senator Charlane Oliver. She is as likely to be as big a thorn in the side of Republicans as Jones, she has the added benefit of actually being qualified for the job. Give her the seat in the interim, and I’m betting she holds it for 20 years.

I’m certainly no fan of Buggs, but at least that would be a move that made sense. Poking the state in the eye for the sake of poking the state in the eye makes no sense. As shared on Twitter this morning, by SomeRandomGuy, “There are three groups of Americans. Two are at war with each other and the largest group in the middle is held hostage by ideologues on both fringes.”

We live in a world where two people can witness the same event and derive a different narrative based on a political bent. Always been like that to a certain extent, but now there is no civil discourse altering either with fact. It is not a good place we live in these days.

In closing, I’m going to steal these words from the Twitter account of Eric Nelson, “Most of the world’s disagreements start with a person who wants to teach a lesson and a person who doesn’t want to learn it. If you want more peace in your life, stop trying to teach those who didn’t ask for it, and be open to the lessons of others (even when they are wrong).

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Categories: Education

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4 replies

  1. TC I think this is well written and thought out article, that addresses some information and history about state government that is too ‘boring’ for people to consider…democracy and governance are tedious and boring most of the time…experiences like these are much more exciting, relateable, and black and white for people to grasp onto! I do think race plays a much more prominent role in this situation than alluded to here…in fact i think that jones’ history of activism suggests that challenging cultural and social beliefs are his primary passion, which in a lot of sense is separate from governance. Initially i thought he would be more powerful as an activist than in the legislature, but also believe that there should be a place for that voice in government, despite how inefficient it may be within that context. although you bring up the issues of the constituents these 3 directly represent are few, i think it is safe to say that representation extends beyond this measure, and that representatives of varying levels of belief must also represent the values of those in larger and larger geographic regions, bc as you state in the article, we can’t all win all the time, but despite this, in idea at least, the makeup of the governing body should represent the makeup of the populace. despite whose district you live in and who represents you, i think there are a lot of people that are tired of old white men and their values and their support of the tn3 is about this. and finally, you bring up a good point about the solutions that republicans have offered through bills this term…i often think that they are offering no solutions so it is a reminder that perhaps republicans and democrats are offering the same amount of limited solutions, although the nature of these solutions are drastically different. republicans seem to fall into either the category of school security/arming teachers (a huge cultural problem right now for good reason), or becoming a christian and repenting from sin, while democrats solutions center around physical gun control measures or limiting who can have guns. will any of these solutions make a measureable difference? there is some evidence to suggest that some do make a difference, while others do not. even given this, i think it is safe to say that the conversation within the context of governance needs to expand.

  2. The General Assembly expelled two, not three members.

  3. TN borders 8 states.

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