The world of politics experienced a collective shock this week as Tennessee Republicans expelled two young, Black, Democratic House members for protesting gun laws on the chamber floor after a deadly school shooting in Nashville.
But for those who have closely watched the chamber in recent years, the events were of little surprise. The place has been defined by partisan vitriol, pique, scandal, racism and Olympic-level pettiness for years.
I know. I covered it.
The protest and subsequent expulsion over decorum rules took place in a chamber where a GOP member, for years, rang a cowbell every day of session as a raucous, attention-grabbing substitute for applause.
When I covered the Tennessee Capitol from 2018 to 2021, the family-values espousing Republican House speaker had to explain why his text message trail included discussions of pole-dancing women and his chief of staff’s sexual encounters in the bathroom of a hot chicken restaurant.
After a Republican lawmaker was accused of sexually assaulting 15- and 16-year-old girls he had taught and coached, he was made chairman of the House education committee.
Protesters filled the halls week after week, year after year, calling for the removal of the bust of the Ku Klux Klan’s first Grand Wizard, a piece of art featured prominently between the House and Senate chambers. Democrats pushed for its removal, while Republicans resisted.
A Democrat who declined to support the current speaker’s reelection had her office moved into a small, windowless room. In a twist of fate, that same Democrat, Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white woman, narrowly escaped expulsion on Thursday. (Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson fared differently.)
And then, of course, there was the famous peeing incident, where a legislator’s office chair was urinated on in an act of intraparty retribution over shitposting. The actual identity of the Republican urinator is a closely-held secret among a small group of operatives who have bragged about witnessing it. But it’s generally accepted that former state Rep. Rick Tillis, a Republican and the brother of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, did indeed have his chair peed on in the Cordell Hull legislative office building.
It wasn’t always quite like this.
There was a time before when one-upmanship wasn’t the organizing principle inside the Tennessee statehouse. Not so long ago, there was more balance in power and, with that, more comity in the chamber. But as Republicans have made bigger gains, they’ve also become more politically confrontational.
The modern Tennessee Republican Party was forged by Howard Baker and others in the 1960s and 70s by tapping into a bipartisan coalition of voters — bringing the GOP from near irrelevance within the state to soon producing some of the nation’s top Republican talent.
“This kind of scene Thursday was the last thing they would have wanted to see happen,” said Keel Hunt, an author of books on Tennessee politics who worked as an aide to then-Gov. Lamar Alexander, a Republican.
I’m reminded of an evening I was sitting in the House press corps box in April 2021, when the House honored Alexander — a Republican and champion of civility, now remembered for his moderate flavor of politics — after his recent retirement from the Senate. Moments later, Republican leadership brought far-right conservative commentator and MAGA firebrand Candace Owens onto the floor, describing her as one of the party’s leading thought leaders of the day, fighting against “creeping socialism and leftist political tyranny.” The Tennessee House passed a resolution thanking her for moving to the state.
The state party knows that it’s drifting. Some openly and proudly admit it. It’s also evidenced by Sen. Bob Corker’s decision not to seek reelection in 2018, and Gov. Bill Haslam’s opting out of running for Alexander’s open seat in 2020. Both Corker and Haslam know they were unlikely to have survived a primary in the state, had they stayed true to their own brands of more moderate conservatism. Corker’s Senate seat ended up going to Marsha Blackburn, a Trump loyalist, and Bill Hagerty, now in Alexander’s seat, handily won the GOP primary after securing his own endorsement from Trump.
The same dynamic is on display at the state Capitol, where former Rep. Eddie Mannis — a John Kasich-Gary Johnson voter in 2016 and a gay Republican — entered the legislature in 2021 with plans of voting like a moderate, in line with his Knoxville district. Last year, he bowed out after just one term, later saying there were “too many people there who are just mean and vindictive,” only caring about “winning at all costs.” Other members live under the fear and dread of a possible primary challenge — the only election that now matters in most districts in Tennessee — if they stray from the party orthodoxy on guns, access to abortion and other issues.
But even for the jaded, Thursday’s expulsions were still extraordinary to watch play out. Longtime political insiders around the Capitol on Monday were stunned to see how quickly expulsion resolutions were drawn up against the three members. Mannis, who now occasionally opines on his former colleagues’ behavior, posted to Facebook: “Today is such a sad day for our State…”
For them and others, the speed with which the Tennessee House acted this week to throw out two young Black legislators must be put into perspective by all the other issues the legislature has declined to act on.
For more than four years, House Republicans declined to expel one of their own, Rep. David Byrd, after he was accused of sexually assaulting three teenage girls, students he taught and coached on a high school basketball team. Byrd was on tape apologizing to one of them, decades later. Even the Republican governor said he believed the allegations to be credible. But House Republicans — some conceding in private that they suspected Byrd may actually have preyed on minors — dug their heels in, saying he was fairly elected.
The debate around removal of the bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest went on for years, even as Black lawmakers pleaded with their colleagues to take down the statue. Republicans punted on opportunities to authorize removal, with many wanting to keep the statue in place. In return, protesters — often led by Jones, one of the expelled representatives — rallied at the Capitol on a regular basis, their shouts outside the chambers carrying through the thick, shuttered wooden doors as lawmakers took up other legislative business. (The bust was finally removed in 2021, with resistance from Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, after GOP Gov. Bill Lee whipped votes on the necessary state commissions to resolve the issue once and for all.)
The undercurrent of race is present in many of the Capitol’s controversies.
“Black people are idiots,” Cade Cothren, the chief of staff to former House Speaker Glen Casada, once wrote in a text message during a conversation about Common Core curriculum. It was one of several uncovered prior to his resignation in 2019. Both Casada and Cothren are now awaiting federal trial in a case involving alleged bribery and kickbacks at the legislature. Cothren has since apologized for the racist comment, and more recently has even condemned the legislature’s decision to expel the Black Democratic legislators.
A former GOP legislative staffer told me that in 2020, a member of House Republican leadership in a text message referred to Jones, then an activist, and another Black lawmaker as “baboons.” Former GOP Rep. Brandon Ogles, then vice-chair of the Republican caucus, at the time also recorded the staffer discussing the text. He shared a copy of the recording with POLITICO. The member of leadership in question denies sending the text. The comments were allegedly made while Jones was taking part in protests following George Floyd’s murder by police.
A member presenting a bill about sanctuary cities in 2018 used the term “wetback” while telling a story. On two separate occasions in 2020, Republican legislators publicly cracked jokes about Black people eating fried chicken.
And on and on.
Politics changes over time, of course. It was the Tennessee Democrats who led the charge to install the Forrest bust in the 1970s and who made life difficult for Republicans when they ran the state legislature for decades.
The state’s Republicans may very well transition too. Perhaps — though there is not an ounce of evidence supporting this theory — that bygone era of Howard Baker bipartisanship will be resuscitated.
But we are clearly not living in it now. Instead, the current era of the Tennessee legislature has been defined by a non-stop stream of befuddling scandals and unforced errors by a Republican supermajority that is seemingly insulated from being punished for them. That body has given the state’s Capitol press corps — a fraction of the size it was decades earlier — no shortage of things to uncover and try to explain to readers. Sometimes, the audience becomes global.
When I departed Tennessee less than two years ago to cover national politics — leaving after a whirlwind of a few years at the state Capitol and the ouster of a House speaker — I wondered if the legislative news there would settle down. Maybe things will become boring back in Tennessee, I thought.
I got my answer pretty quickly.
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