Democratic lawmakers in Georgia say expulsions from Tennessee are sign of rising tensions

This story was updated on April 26 at 11:43 am

A day after the Republican-dominated Tennessee House of Representatives voted to expel two black congressmen for suspending a session, Democrats rallied next door in Georgia on Zoom.

“This is no time for us to back down,” said State Rep. Kim Schofield. “This is a day of awakening. If you think this is not possible in Georgia, unfortunately you are wrong.”

With the two Tennessee Democrats now back in their seats, lawmakers in other parts of the country fear the debacle over decency could be a foretaste of what’s to come in their own state legislatures.

On Wednesday, the Montana House of Representatives could vote to censure or expel Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a transgender Democrat who has controversially spoken out against an attempt to ban gender-affirming childcare. Republicans say she broke the rules of decency.

Regarding Georgia Democrats’ call, House Minority Chairman James Beverly said the Republican-led legislature in Georgia also applies decorum rules and norms unevenly, such as instituting new local redistribution plans in response to protests by statehouse delegations supporting them represent communities.

“The rules apply to those who are in the minority, not the majority,” Beverly said.

He also referenced an incident in 2021 when Democratic MP Park Cannon was arrested in the capital. She had knocked on the locked door of a room where the Republican governor was holding a press conference on a recently signed revision of state election laws.

Proper fighting is nothing new, but it’s changing

For some Democrats, the Tennessee deportations five decades ago created another moment.

Julian Bond, a young black civil rights activist, had just been elected to a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives. However, he refused to distance himself from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had published a statement critical of the Vietnam War. The legislature refused to grant him a seat.

“The elected officials were whipped up into refusing me to take the oath of office,” Bond said in a 1967 interview.

The US Supreme Court ruled that legislators have wide latitude to express their political views. The judges said Bond must be seated.

Go further back in time and discover the story of the Original 33. During Reconstruction, they were the first African Americans elected to the Georgian legislature. Then white lawmakers from both parties banded together to get her expelled.

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

“We’re now seeing a huge national tug-of-war over the direction of the country, which is happening at the state level because that’s where the political opportunities are,” he says.

Grumbach wrote a book entitled Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics. And while both Democratic and Republican majorities have the power to enact partisan priorities, Grumbach says a party is more prone to breaking norms.

“We’ve really seen Republicans taking advantage of the law more than Democrats,” Grumbach said.

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

This year there were moves in Tennessee and Montana. Two Democratic lawmakers protesting new abortion restrictions have been arrested in Florida. And in Oklahoma, a non-binary legislature was thrown out of committees.

The two Tennessee Democrats broke up a meeting with a bullhorn as they urged their peers to consider tougher gun laws after a mass shooting at a private Nashville elementary school.

Majority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, Republican Chuck Efstration, says those moves don’t apply to other states in Georgia. He also says Republicans don’t even have the votes to unilaterally remove a member.

But by and large, says Efstration, etiquette creates space for civil discussion of sensitive issues.

“The Georgia House of Representatives places a strong emphasis on maintaining the opportunity for respectful debate so members can vote on their conscience and on their constituencies, and that’s how a legislature should function,” says Efstration.

The impact on legislation

Georgia Democrats recognize that Tennessee could be an extreme example. But they say the majority is also using its dominance to push through laws that don’t agree with the views of the state’s residents, such as relaxing gun laws, severely restricting abortion and making voting harder.

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

“There has really been a breakdown in the relationship between citizen opinion and politics at the state level,” he says.

Democratic Rep. Michelle Au sees this discrepancy as Republicans being unwilling to even consider widely popular proposals to tighten Georgia’s gun laws. So much so that getting a hearing on their bill requiring safekeeping of firearms around children was a big deal.

“Your decision to hear this bill is truly a testament to your openness and leadership,” said Au, then-Chairman of the Republican committee.

Still, the Republican leadership did not allow the bill to go to a vote.