NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Democrats can’t believe the moment they’re in.
An emotional, weeks-long confrontation in the state Legislature has thrust Nashville onto the national political scene and put the southern city at the center of a debate about race, activism and gun violence.
While Republicans intended their ouster of two progressive lawmakers last week to be a punishment, the move has turned into one of the Democratic Party’s best chances in years to boost their organization in the South. Democrats are dreaming up ways to claw back some power from the GOP, fueled by an influx of out-of-state dollars and new commitments from Tennesseans to get involved with politics.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we have to take advantage of,” state Sen. London Lamar, a Democrat who represents parts of Memphis, said in an interview.
A blue turnaround in Tennessee seemed like a pipe dream just a few weeks ago — and maybe still does. Democrats are outnumbered, out-resourced and hamstrung by a legislative map drawn to favor Republicans. It’s also a state that suffers from one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country.
Party insiders and organizers are the first to concede just how bad they have it.
“Nothing changes the fact that these districts are highly gerrymandered,” said Lisa Quigley, a former chief of staff to Rep. Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat who didn’t seek reelection after his district was effectively eliminated in redistricting last year. “It’s going to take some really smart organizing all over the state, because none of us vote very well.”
But if there was ever a moment when the party stood a chance, it’s now. The state Democratic Party has been flooded with donations and interest since the GOP started moving against three Democrats for participating in a gun safety protest on the state House floor, and ultimately expelling two of them last week for violating decorum rules. Their stunt angered Republicans who wanted to see them promptly punished, invoking a rare removal process marked by its partisanship and accusations of racism.
Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, the last Democrat to hold statewide office in Tennessee, called the GOP vote “a great overreaction.”
“I always thought one of the principles of leadership is to be careful. You can have fights, but don’t make martyrs,” Bredesen, who served until 2011, said in an interview. “Apparently Republicans missed that concept.”
Most Republicans have avoided commenting on the spectacle outside of last week’s removal proceedings, where they admonished the Democrats for disrupting the process. House Speaker Cameron Sexton, during a radio interview, called the floor protest to an “insurrection” akin to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“Their actions are and will always be unacceptable, and they break several rules of decorum and procedure on the House floor,” Sexton said on Twitter early last week. “Their actions and beliefs that they could be arrested on the House floor were an effort, unfortunately, to make themselves the victims.”
Sexton, a longtime lawmaker believed to have aspirations for governor, has not tweeted since.
On the day that state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two Black millennial freshmen, were kicked out of the Legislature, 33,000 people called into the state party office looking to get involved, Democratic Party Chair Hendrell Remus said. So far, nearly 10,000 have signed up to volunteer, he said in an interview, and hundreds of people have expressed interest in running for office — many in districts where Republican lawmakers ran unopposed in the midterms. More than half of Republican lawmakers serving in the statehouse today were uncontested in November.
Democrats are targeting a handful of competitive districts where they believe strong candidates can pick off Republican incumbents. Those include the newly drawn 5th Congressional District encompassing parts of Nashville, which Rep. Andy Ogles won last year.
They have their eye on state legislative districts outside Memphis, Knoxville and Clarksville. Long term, the party sees opportunities around the southern suburbs of Nashville in Rutherford County.
Democrats are also placing their hopes on winning a lawsuit challenging the new redistricting maps, where they say a victory would create much-needed political openings.
“Had we not been gerrymandered to shreds, then this supermajority couldn’t have existed to be able to expel our members,” Remus said.
Jones triumphantly returned to the Legislature on Tuesday, leading a march of more than 1,000 people to the Capitol steps after being reinstated by the Nashville city council. Pearson is expected to be reinstated to his seat on Wednesday and return to work the following day.
Jones, Pearson and Rep. Gloria Johnson, the third Democratic lawmaker who participated in the same floor protest but escaped expulsion by a single vote, together represent a new class of elected officials in Tennessee. They’ve come from activist circles and push progressive causes like criminal justice reform, gun safety and climate change. Organizers are aiming to recruit more candidates in that model.
“They are the least favorable Democrats in the House and they have created the most change and impact for being themselves,” said Tequila Johnson, executive director for the Equity Alliance, a grassroots group focused on increasing civic engagement in Black communities.
After his return to the Legislature on Tuesday, Jones thanked Republicans for “awakening the people of this state,” particularly young people.
“No expulsion, no attempt to silence us will stop us but only galvanize and strengthen our movement,” Jones said to loud cheers from his supporters packing the galleries.