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Nashville councilmember plans to restore ousted Tennessee Democrat

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One of the Tennessee lawmakers who was expelled by the state legislature last week could be headed back to the Capitol in Nashville. The Nashville Metro Council met today and voted to temporarily reinstate Representative Justin Jones to the seat that he was ousted from. Jones was expelled along with fellow Democrat Justin Pearson. Both of them are Black. A third Democrat, Representative Gloria Johnson, who is a white woman, was also up for expulsion, but she was able to keep her seat by a single vote. All three of them took part in protests that disrupted proceedings at the State House. They were calling for stricter gun control measures in the state. Zulfat Suara is a Democrat who sits on the Nashville Metro Council and voted to have Jones reinstated. She says Jones is a close friend.

ZULFAT SUARA: Yes, and actually, he's like a son to me. He calls me his Mama Z. So we've had a relationship for a long time, but my vote is not just about that. My vote is based on all the thousands of emails and calls that we've received from his constituents demanding that we send him back. And so it's about the voices of the voters and why we have to respect that.

CHANG: When I spoke to Councilwoman Suara earlier today, I asked her what went through her mind last week when Representatives Jones and Pearson were expelled.

SUARA: I was actually sitting in the gallery. I had been out of town. I came back that morning, went straight to the state capitol and listened to the hearing and the back-and-forth. And I was sitting there thinking, you know, at the end of the day, they would not expel them. Like, you know, we know what happened. We know why they protest, and we know - I see people on the streets. I see mothers crying, students begging for us to do something. And that's what they were trying to do. So I thought at the end of the day, you know, nothing would happen.

And so when the vote actually happened, I was crying. I knew we had the opportunity to possibly put him back. But the fact that it did happen was a farce in democracy. I have an 18-year-old that just voted for the first time, and I'm sitting there thinking, what would these kids be thinking about when a legislature can be voted out just like that just because they wanted to stand with the people and especially in a place where we've had other people committed worse things, done worse things and were not expelled? So it was very disheartening. It was very emotional for a lot of us. It was very upsetting, and it was really bad. And at the end of the day, it was actually worse when there were three of them, but only the two Black were expelled. So the...

CHANG: I wanted to ask you about that piece of all this. Do you think the decision to expel Jones and Pearson but not Johnson - do you think that decision was related to race?

SUARA: I mean, the optics doesn't look good. And that's the only conclusion that can be drawn because all three of them had the hearing. All three of them had the resolution. All three of them were standing up there. And so whatever compelled some people to vote against expelling Gloria Johnson - why did they not use the same to be able to keep the other two? It just doesn't make sense. And so to me and to everybody looking at it, the optics doesn't look good. And, I mean, they can say something else. But the action shows that two Black men were expelled, and it has to be raised.

CHANG: If we can just step back, your city, Nashville, went through the trauma of a mass shooting at a school just two weeks ago. In fact, that was the reason for the protests...

SUARA: Yes.

CHANG: ...Calling for stricter gun control measures.

SUARA: Yes.

CHANG: And now those protests have given way to this bigger debate about democracy in your state. I mean, you're thinking about your 18-year-old son, who just voted. Do you think this whole situation has turned into a distraction from the original issue - guns?

SUARA: I think the hearing and the expulsion was a distraction. I think the people that are protesting have not lost sight of why they started the protest. At every protest that I've attended, at everything that I've seen, people still keep bringing back the issue of the guns. And so even with the hearing, I remember Jones saying that, look; even if you expel me, we will be back. We're going to still be talking about this. On Friday, there was another protest held in Nashville about guns. And so we have not forgotten. I think they're the ones trying to distract, but we are laser focused on the reason why we're here.

CHANG: Well, the Republican leadership in the state legislature has staunchly defended its decision to expel Representatives Jones and Pearson. Tell me. What would you like to say personally to those Republican lawmakers at the state capitol now?

SUARA: I would like to say a couple of things. The first thing is that if the council - Nashville City Council and Memphis commissioners should vote to put these individuals back, I hope that the state would not object, and I hope that they will see to them as soon as possible. That would be the first thing. The second thing that I would like to say is that none of us should forget the reason why all this started. It's about the people that died. It's about the protest for good gun laws. So personally, I hope that our state legislators will enact safe gun laws, common sense gun laws. And so I'm hoping that at the end of the day, one, that these two Black men get their seats back and their people choose to send them back. And then No. 2 - that I hope after all of this that our state legislators listen to the people, the outcries, the rally and make sure that we do something about gun control in our state.

CHANG: That was Nashville councilwoman at-large Zulfat Suara. Thank you very much for your time today.

SUARA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.