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Democratic leader of the House in Tennessee on what's next after the expulsion of two members

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We're starting this hour in Tennessee, where Democrats are picking up the pieces after the state's House of Representatives expelled two of the party's members last week, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. Republicans in the chamber said the two men, who are both Black, violated decorum when they spoke on the House floor without being recognized and used a bullhorn to call for gun control. Another Democrat, a white woman, participated in the protest but was not expelled. Local legislatures are expected to meet soon to name people to fill the vacant seats. The Democratic leader of the House, Karen Camper, represents part of Memphis, as did one of the expelled members, Justin Pearson. I asked her what the reaction had been from their constituents.

KAREN CAMPER: Well, man, constituents are excited over the fact that this young man, who's an advocate and come out of the advocacy world, made a stand for the people. They felt like he, you know, in his advocacy self, was speaking up for the voiceless. And people in Memphis want him back. They're urging the county commission to send him back. And they're going to be here every day until he comes back.

RASCOE: You know, as I mentioned, Pearson and Jones are both Black, and you're a Black woman. And there are nine other Black Democrats in the House left, if I'm not mistaken. Did you feel like this was a message being sent to the Black lawmakers in the House of Representatives?

CAMPER: I think it was, in the sense that here are two Black men standing up who was honored to actually be serving, thinking back on our history and what it took to even get us there. And they both kind of been met with some level of what they perceive is racial tensions toward them. So there is this sense that, you know, what message are you trying to send to the Black caucus here? You know, so I do think members are thinking back and looking at their own life course here and, you know, reevaluating some of these relationships.

RASCOE: And so what are you feeling going forward or how you respond going forward?

CAMPER: Well, the first thing is to get them reseated. And it appears that the two bodies will, in fact, reappoint them and then there will be a special election, and the people want them back. So we feel that they will be reseated. I spoke with the speaker, and we're planning to reseed them if that's what the people want. They will not be pushing back on it. It won't be no attempt to not seat them. So we expect that they will actually be reseated to their position. And then we're going to fight to get some gun safety legislation passed.

RASCOE: Because that's what these two lawmakers, the two Justins, Justin Pearson and Justin Jones - they were calling for more gun control legislation in response to that fatal shooting last month at a Christian school in Tennessee. Do you feel like their expulsion helps that cause, or is it a distraction?

CAMPER: I think what has happened is that because of the expulsion, it has ignited a fire across this state. If you look at all the young people who were there saying, we are terrified of going back to school. We're tired of doing mass shooting or gun alert kinds of practices and where we got to run and hide in a closet. They're tired of that.

RASCOE: Vice President Kamala Harris visited Nashville Friday to speak with the two ousted members. She then spoke at Fisk University, a historically Black university. Here's a little of what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Democracy says you don't silence the people. You do not stifle the people. You don't turn off their microphones when they are speaking about the importance of life and liberty.

(CHEERING)

RASCOE: How important was her visit to you and other Democratic leaders?

CAMPER: Extremely - I was there. I mean, I got chills just listening to it again. And that outburst from the crowd was exactly what was happening in the statehouse. People want to be heard. And it just meant the world to our caucus and especially to the three of them, that their work was not in vain and that their work was a just cause.

RASCOE: I know you mentioned that you think that there is an opportunity to work - for Republicans and Democrats to work together, you know, even in the light of this expulsion. I guess, like, for people who are listening and may feel like, you know, they've heard these things at the state level, at the federal level, and they're not seeing much get done - what do you say to that? What are the real chances of, you know, getting something done, especially when it comes to contentious issues like gun control?

CAMPER: The Republicans are going to have to look in the mirror and decide if they really want to do something to make change with respect to gun safety. I'm an eternal optimist. I'm not going to ever give up. That's not who I am. That's not where my people come from. That's not my history. The two men who was ousted - they're the same way. That's not who they are at their core. So we cannot ever stop fighting for what we know is right.

RASCOE: That's Karen Camper, minority leader of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Thank you so much for joining us.

CAMPER: Thank you so much for having me. Keep us in your prayers on this Easter weekend. And thank you so much, NPR, for covering this story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.