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Some state lawmakers say Tennessee expulsions highlight growing tensions

Rep.-elect Julian Bond, center, who was refused a seat in the Georgia House, looks through his desk as two of his Fulton County colleagues, Reps. Jack Etheridge, left, and Charlie Brown raise their hands for the oath of office in Atlanta, Jan. 10, 1966.
Associated Press
Rep.-elect Julian Bond, center, who was refused a seat in the Georgia House, looks through his desk as two of his Fulton County colleagues, Reps. Jack Etheridge, left, and Charlie Brown raise their hands for the oath of office in Atlanta, Jan. 10, 1966.

ATLANTA – A day after the Republican-dominated Tennessee House voted to expel two Black legislators for interrupting a floor session, Democrats next door in Georgia gathered on Zoom.

"This is not a time for us to shrink back," state Rep. Kim Schofield said. "This is a day of awakening. If you don't think it can happen in Georgia, you are sadly mistaken."

While the two Tennessee Democrats are now back in their seats, lawmakers in other parts of the country worry the debacle over decorum may foreshadow what's to come in their own state legislatures.

Wednesday, Montana's House voted to formally punish state Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a transgender Democrat who spoke out against a move to ban gender-affirming care for minors using controversial language. Republicans say she broke the rules of decorum and have barred her from attending or speaking during House session the rest of the legislative term.

On the Georgia call among Democrats, House Minority Leader James Beverly said Georgia's Republican-led legislature also applies decorum rules and norms unevenly, like adopting new local redistricting maps over the protests of the statehouse delegations that represent those communities.

"The rules are made for those who are in the minority and not the majority," Beverly said.

He also pointed to an incident in 2021 when Democratic Rep. Park Cannon was arrested at the capitol. She had been knocking on the locked door of a room where the Republican governor was holding a news conference on a newly signed overhaul of state election laws.

Decorum fights are nothing new, but they are changing

For some Democrats, the expulsions in Tennessee evoked another moment, five decades ago.

Julian Bond, a young Black civil rights leader, had just been elected to a Georgia House seat. But he refused to dissociate from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had released a critical statement on the Vietnam War. The legislature refused to seat him.

"The elected officials were whipped up to the point where they refused to let me take the oath of office," Bond said in a 1967 interview.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers have wide latitude to express views on policy. The justices said Bond had to be seated.

Go further back in time, and there's the story of the "Original 33." During Reconstruction, they were the first African Americans elected to Georgia's legislature. Then, white lawmakers from both parties banded together to have them expelled.

But Jake Grumbach, a professor of political science at the University of Washington, says what's happening in legislatures now has a lot more to do with national partisan battles than the specific politics of Georgia, Tennessee, Montana or any other state.

"We're now seeing a huge amount of national tug of war over the direction of the country happening at the state level because that's where the political opportunities are," he says.

Grumbach wrote a book called Laboratories against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics. And while Democratic and Republican majorities alike wield power to pass partisan priorities, Grumbach says one party has been more prone to break norms.

"We've really seen Republicans exploit their advantage within the bounds of the law more than Democrats have," Grumbach says.

Republican-dominated state legislatures in other states have taken more extreme steps to penalize Democrats.

This year, there have been the moves in Tennessee and Montana. In Florida, two Democratic lawmakers were arrested protesting new abortion restrictions. And in Oklahoma, a nonbinary lawmaker was kicked off committees.

The two Tennesee Democrats interrupted a floor session with a megaphone, as they called on their colleagues to consider stronger gun laws after a mass shooting at a private Nashville elementary school.

Georgia's House Majority Leader, Republican Chuck Efstration, says these moves in other statehouses don't apply in Georgia. Plus he says Republicans don't even have the votes to unilaterally remove a member.

But broadly, Efstration says decorum rules create space for civil discussions on thorny topics.

"The Georgia House of Representatives believes very deeply in maintaining the opportunity for respectful debate, for members to vote their conscience, vote their districts and that's really how a legislative body ought to work," Efstration says.

The effect on legislation

Georgia state Rep. Michelle Au, a Democrat, introduced several bills to strengthen Georgia's firearm laws at the Georgia state Capitol in Atlanta on Feb. 13, 2023.
Sam Gringlas / WABE
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WABE
Georgia state Rep. Michelle Au, a Democrat, introduced several bills to strengthen Georgia's firearm laws at the Georgia state Capitol in Atlanta on Feb. 13, 2023.

Democrats in Georgia acknowledge Tennessee may be an extreme example. But they say the majority also exploits their dominance to shove through legislation that doesn't match the views of the state's residents, like loosening gun laws, severely restricting abortion and making it harder to vote.

Grumbach says gerrymandering helps make this possible. In battleground Georgia last year, just five of 236 statehouse races were considered competitive in the 2022 election.

"There really has been a breakdown of the relationship between citizens' opinions and policy at the state level," he says.

Democratic Rep. Michelle Au sees that disconnect in Republicans' unwillingness to consider even broadly popular proposals to strengthen Georgia's gun laws. So much so that just getting a hearing on her bill requiring safe firearm storage around children was a big deal.

"Your choice to hear this bill is really a testament to your openness and your leadership," Au told the Republican committee chair at the time.

Even so, the Republican leadership didn't allow the bill to come up for a vote.

Copyright 2023 90.1 WABE

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.