County commissioners speak out ahead of Wednesday’s vote on Justin J. Pearson

Published: Apr. 10, 2023 at 6:57 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Music City sent its ousted state representative back to Capitol Hill on Monday. Will Bluff City lawmakers do the same for exiled State Rep. Justin J. Pearson?

Four Shelby County commissioners have already made their decision two days ahead of Wednesday’s special meeting called for the reappointment of Pearson.

Pearson, officially sworn in a little over two weeks ago, has already garnered support from around the world, including from President Biden, after he and Nashville Representative Justin Jones were expelled from their seats by the supermajority GOP for breaking the rules of decorum on the House floor while leading a gun control protest with Knoxville Representative Gloria Johnson, who survived the expulsion vote.

It will take seven Shelby County commissioner votes to reappoint Pearson, and there are 13 Shelby County Commissioners: nine Democrats and four Republicans.

Two of the Democrats, Commissioner Britney Thornton (District 10) and Commissioner Michael Whaley (District 13), confirmed to Action News 5 they are out of the country and cannot vote, leaving 11 commissioners to decide Justin Pearson’s future.

Four have confirmed they’ll vote “yes” to re-appoint Pearson. The rest are staying silent in a political battle being watched across the country.

Former Rep. Pearson spent Monday evening cheering with supporters after Rep. Jones was sworn back into office.

The Metro Nashville Council unanimously re-appointed Jones.

On Wednesday, April 12, the Shelby County Commission will similarly vote on whether or not to send Pearson back to the legislature.

Democratic Commissioner Charlie Caswell (District 6) said it’s an easy vote.

“For me, it’s a process that I think was done unjustly and unfair, and so I’m looking forward to us Wednesday doing the right thing,” said Commissioner Caswell.

Commissioner Miska Clay-Bibbs (District 11) said she has faith that commissioners will vote to reappoint.

“I received several phone calls, emails, text messages from his constituents, as well as others, who are a part of my district as well who are in support of him. I plan on continuing to support him,” said Clay-Bibbs.

Although she will be out of the country, Commissioner Thornton said in the midst of preparing budgets that affect over 60,000 Shelby County residents, it’s important to put Pearson back in his seat.

“The urgency of it is because he has been expelled, the reappointment process is at our discussion, and so the sense of urgency is to be able to get him back into a seat and to represent his constituents,” Thornton said.

In published reports, Republican Shelby County Commissioner Amber Mills (District 1) worried re-appointing Pearson could jeopardize state funding, including the $350 million Governor Lee promised Memphis for upgrades to sports arenas, including FedExForum.

There is precedent: the state took $250,000 away from Memphis in 2018 as retribution for removing two Confederate statues. The money had been earmarked for Memphis’ Centennial celebration.

But in an email to Action News 5, Doug Kufner, Communications Director for Speaker Sexton said, “The governor has proposed $350 million for the Memphis stadiums in the budget; the speaker has been and will continue to be supportive of these projects. The House hasn’t entered into budget negotiations with the Senate at this time. He is hopeful the funding will remain in when the final budget is presented on both floors.”

Pearson said the 60,000 Memphians who call District 86 home ultimately deserve leadership that doesn’t cower to threats.

“Can we be bought? Is there a price we can be bought for? For our democracy, for our vote, for our vote in the Tennessee State House?” he said, “If there’s a price we can vote for, then those county commissioners shouldn’t be there.”

Attorneys representing the ousted lawmakers sent a letter to Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton on Monday, warning the GOP it could be in violation of the Tennessee constitution if it continues to unlawfully sanction the young legislators.

In part, the letter reads, “The world is watching Tennessee. Any partisan retributive action, such as discriminatory treatment of elected officials, or threats or actions to withhold funding for government programs, would constitute further unconstitutional action that would require redress.”

The House Majority Leader and Republican Caucus Chairman issued a statement on social media, reading in part, “Should any expelled member be reappointed, we will welcome them. Like everyone else, they are expected to follow the rules of the House as well as state law.”

The vote will take place Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.

One final note: the Tennessee Constitution says a member of the Tennessee General Assembly cannot be expelled twice for the same offense.

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