Nashville’s ascendant young Democrat state representative Justin Jones won the special election for his Tennessee House seat in a landslide victory on Thursday, four months after he was expelled from the legislature in a GOP-led move many regarded as racist.
With all precincts reporting, the 27-year-old Afro-Filipino activist won more than 77% of the vote against his Republican opponent Laura Nelson, who entered the race after Republican Gov. Bill Lee called a special election in April. Jones was reappointed to the seat on an interim basis by the Nashville Metro Council in late April and won his no-contest primary in June.
Following this week’s victory, Jones spoke of the journey to victory as a fight against anti-democratic forces.
“The people have won today,” he told supporters in a victory party alongside State Rep. Gloria Johnson, one of the three Tennessee House members brought up for an expulsion vote by Republicans in April following participation in a gun control protest in the state capitol.
“The people of District 52 have sent an overwhelming message, a mandate, to my Republican colleagues that we're going to stand up and fight back and that we’re going to build a multi-racial, multi-generational movement to transform this state and move our state forward. To fight for a state where we protect kids and not guns.”
State Rep. Justin J. Pearson of Memphis, also expelled and reappointed as part of the “Tennessee Three,” won his special election on Thursday as well, defeating his opponent with nearly 94% of the vote. Johnson, the only White member of the trio, was not expelled.
Their capitol protest on March 30 concerned the deadly mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville three days prior and involved Jones’ use of a bullhorn to allegedly disrupt House proceedings. The incident arose from opposition to those in the GOP-led legislature who have repeatedly blocked gun control measures. The same lawmakers quickly moved to expel the three along party-line votes.
Three days after being reappointed and sworn in before a swollen crowd on the steps of the state capitol on April 11, Jones introduced a bill in the House that would make it illegal in Tennessee to carry or manufacture a gun with a capacity of more than 10 rounds. The legislation was quickly tabled by Republican House leaders.
“The FIND OUT era of politics is just beginning,” Jones wrote on social media Thursday night. The post was accompanied by a picture of himself in the state capital speaking to the assembly in front of State House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican from rural Tennessee west of Nashville who has played an outsize role in the opposition to Jones and other progressive House members.
Jones’ comments echoed his victory party remarks, wherein he described the Tennessee GOP’s attempts to “buy this election” by pouring money into the two special election campaigns in heavily blue, majority-minority districts.
“They could not beat people power. So we are hopeful. We’re tired but we’re hopeful,” he said.
“Thank you all for standing with us… showing up. And letting them know that we’re not putting up with their B.S.”
Thursday’s electoral success has brought a renewed outpouring of support for Jones and Pearson, who became the center of a political zeitgeist this spring as they traded words with their GOP counterparts both within and outside the capitol.
In addition to their active online presence, the two young freshman lawmakers made appearances on national television and in church houses to express their resilience and their faith-centered approach to politics. The Catholic-raised Jones—who has since studied to become a Protestant minister—made reference to a “third Reconstruction” and the crucifixion and resurrection of democracy in an NBC interview on Holy Thursday just days after his expulsion.
Jones and Pearson also received support from the likes of President Joe Biden, who met with the two at the White House in late April following their reappointment, along with Johnson. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Jones’ fellow Bay Area native and a major donor to his special election campaign, cheered his “decisive victory” on Thursday night.
“So pleased that the voters have sent you back where you belong—pursuing justice and opportunity For The People,” she wrote on Twitter.
One of Jones’ first duties as a fully restored lawmaker will be a special session later this month where legislators are expected to discuss changing the state’s gun control policies—which have allowed for permitless carry since 2021 and are among the loosest in America.
Just this week, Gov. Lee doubled down on a proposed order of protection law that would keep guns out of the hands of those suffering from mental illness. However, no such legislation has gained ground, and state GOP leaders—including Speaker Sexton—have indicated they will not support it.
Among others, Jones has remained defiant.
“We’re going to show up on August 21 for special session with our heads held high, with our spines straight, saying we have a mandate from the people of District 52 to say to the speaker that we are not bowing down,” Jones said on Thursday.
“We’re not afraid.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.