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"You can't expel hope" | Shelby County Commission reappoints St. Rep. Justin Pearson to TN House seat

A march and rally began at noon in support of Pearson ahead of the special meeting. St. Reps. Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson joined the marchers.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted to reappoint District 86 representative Justin Pearson to the Tennessee House during a special meeting Wednesday.

“At this point it’s about doing the right thing," Commissioner Erika Sugarmon said. “It infringes upon their voting, as far as you know, if take someone out of office that’s been elected then what are you saying to the voters.” 

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted 7-0 to reinstate Pearson.

The vote was held quickly, in order to get Pearson back to Nashville as soon as possible, said Shelby County Commission Chairman Mickell Lowery. 

"Nashville thought they could silence democracy, but they didn't know the Shelby County Commission, still with some courageous leaders who their threats of not giving us resources wouldn't stop," said Pearson after the vote. 

Even though he's now re-instated, Pearson will also face another special election to hold on to the seat.

“I think it was unjustly done and not fairly done at the state level," Charlie Caswell said. "We shouldn’t have to go through this. Taxpayers shouldn’t be having to pay again for another election to happen.”   

According to the constitution of the state of Tennessee, when there is a vacancy in the Tennessee general assembly, members of the Shelby County Commission can appoint someone to fill that vacancy.  

The Secretary of State confirmed Governor Bill Lee must call a special election. There will be a primary election in Pearson's district and then the General Election set for a date of 100 to 107 days after the governor calls for the special election. 

Pearson's supporters said they're ready to elect him into office for the second time this year.   

“You cannot try to get rid of our members, our members," Jesse Chism the State Representative District 85. "The people will speak; they speak loud."

The reappointment vote came after a march and rally in support of Pearson ahead of the special afternoon meeting. The rally began at noon Wednesday at the National Civil Rights Museum, and it ended at the Shelby County Administration Building on Main St., where the vote took place. St. Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville and Gloria Johnson of Knoxville joined the hundreds of marchers.

“We are going to take this momentum and this movement to continue to push for laws, not just executive orders," Pearson said. 

Pearson released the following statement in response to the Shelby County Commission’s vote to reinstate Pearson to represent District 86:

"I’m so humbled and grateful to once again represent District 86. Thank you to those who rallied, marched, wrote letters, posted on social media and prayed for this moment. I thank the members of the Shelby County Commission for their courage to do what is right, to protect the representation that voters in District 86 went to the polls twice to earn.

We’ve been through a lot this past week, but the struggle continues and we’re in this together. We’ve seen more than our share of struggles in District 86–exploitation, racism, and all manner of inequities. But we’ve always triumphed because we’ve been on the right side of history. As Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We are benders of that arc and justice is what we will achieve--justice for those who mourn the loss of loved ones to gun violence and endure the stubborn racial and financial disparities that have no place in our world.

Representative Justin Jones and I are back in the People’s House and the people have begun to turn the tide. With the eyes of the nation watching, Governor Bill Lee signed an executive order to strengthen background checks for gun purchasing, and GOP Representative Paul Sherrell has been removed from the House Criminal Justice Committee after suggesting Tennessee bring lynching back to our state.

The winds of change are blowing across Tennessee and our nation. This moment called for justice, for action. We weren’t silent. We answered and we prevailed. But, we have a long way to go. We must ban assault weapons. We must reimagine a school safety that nourishes and supports, educates, and protects our children, not one that criminalizes them and looks like a prison. We must look to Restorative Justice instead of police brutality and an unjust criminal justice system. We must fight back against the cruelty to our trans children and other LGBTQ siblings. We must fight environmental racism, instead bring clean energy and green jobs to our district. We must eliminate the policy violence of economic, social and political inequality.

None of this is easy, especially in a state so heavily gerrymandered and so anti-democratic as Tennessee, but our ancestors faced worse and they prevailed. So will we, as long as we stay in the streets, in the halls of power and in the front of the chamber–together.

Our values of democracy, freedom, equality, safety from gun violence and well-being for all are the majority values in our district, our state and our nation. We are the majority.

Thank you for bringing me back to the People’s House where we can accomplish great things together. We are the new Tennessee."

Pearson was expelled from his seat, along with Nashville representative Justin Jones, on April 6, 2023, for their role in a protest that called for more gun control in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting in Nashville. 

On Monday, April 10, the Nashville Metro Council unanimously voted to send Jones back to his seat in the state legislature. 

The appointments are interim and special elections for the seats will take place in the coming months. Jones and Pearson have said they plan to run in the special elections.

Congressman Steve Cohen of Memphis was at Wednesday's Shelby County Commission meeting and released this statement following the vote: 

“I am pleased to see the swift reversal of the questionably legal and immoral vote to remove an upstanding and principled legislator from his state House seat. Gun violence, and real solutions to ending it, will be discussed in the Tennessee General Assembly, and across the nation, because they must be. The unjustified removal of Justin Pearson and Justin Jones advanced the cause of gun control and hampered Republican efforts to suppress it. I hope their temporary removal will galvanize all of us who know sensible solutions are possible and necessary. I agree with Justin’s words this afternoon: ‘you can’t expel hope.’ ”


Shelby County Commission Chairman Mickell Lowery shared his thoughts on the issue before the vote:

"The protests at the State Capitol by citizens recently impacted by the senseless deaths of three 9-year-old children and three adults entrusted with their care at their school was understandable given the fact that the gun laws in the State of Tennessee are becoming nearly non-existent. It is equally understandable that the leadership of the State House of Representatives felt a strong message had to be sent to those who transgressed the rules. However, I believe the expulsion of State Representative Justin Pearson was conducted in a hasty manner without consideration of other corrective action methods. I also believe that the ramifications for our great State are still yet to be seen."

Lowery said, as someone who resides in District 86, he knows that more than 68,000 citizens were "stripped of having a representative" after the outcome of the State Assembly's vote.

"I am certain that the leaders in the State Capitol understand the importance of this action on behalf of the affected citizens here in Shelby County, Tennessee and that we stand ready to work in concert with them to assist with only positive outcomes going forward," Lowery said.

Initially, there was some concern that Nashville would withhold previously approved state funding for upcoming projects in the Bluff City if Pearson was reappointed by Memphis officials. Pearson himself asked if Memphis can "put a price tag" on "our voices."

In a statement, Doug Kufner, Republican representative and appointed Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton's communications director, said if Pearson was reappointed to office, Sexton confirmed he will continue to be supportive of upcoming projects in Shelby County.

“The governor has proposed $350 million for the Memphis stadiums in the budget; [Sexton] has been and will continue to be supportive of these projects. The House hasn’t entered into budget negotiations with the Senate at this time. He is hopeful the funding will remain in when the final budget is presented on both floors.”

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