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Tennessee GOP Rep. Barrett on why he voted to expel two colleagues but not the third

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's go now to Tennessee, where the last two weeks have seen the following cascade of events - a shooting at an elementary school in Nashville that killed three children and three adults. Then came protests - ordinary people in the streets outside the state Capitol, calling for stronger gun control laws. Then came protests inside the Capitol - Democratic lawmakers on the House floor calling for the same. Well, two of those lawmakers were expelled yesterday from the Republican-controlled House. We wanted to understand why, so we have called Jody Barrett. He's part of the Republican leadership, and we reached him in his hometown - Dixon, Tenn. Representative Barrett, thanks so much for being with us.

JODY BARRETT: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Why expel these two lawmakers?

BARRETT: Well, there's - these three individuals breached decorum and House rules, and I think even one of the representatives called it occupied the House of Representatives by taking over the floor of the House during session with a bullhorn and leading the gallery in chants and cheers, with a large protesting group outside of the chamber doors as well. And so there was - all of the expulsion proceedings that took place yesterday was in response to those actions by those...

KELLY: To their being out of order is what you're saying.

BARRETT: That's correct.

KELLY: Just to push you on that a little bit - your colleague, the House speaker, Cameron Sexton, also a Republican - I heard him compare the protest to the January 6 insurrection. And I was thinking, on January 6, 2021, thousands of people broke into the U.S. Capitol, caused a number of deaths, ransacked offices and tried to overturn a democratic election. There in Tennessee, we had three lawmakers who you're saying spoke out of turn. Is it comparable, really?

BARRETT: Well, I think it's a little bit simplifying things to say that three lawmakers spoke out of turn, taking into account the totality of the circumstances of the day, with protesters that were being very loud and agitated and these three individuals in particular going in and out of the chamber to talk directly to the protesters and gas them up during the day. In the totality of the circumstances, it is comparable or at least can be compared to January 6 in that both efforts were made to...

KELLY: Well, again, people died on January 6.

BARRETT: I understand that. But if you boil it down to what actually happened, both incidents were an attempt to interrupt a governmental activity or proceeding.

KELLY: We had one of the two representatives who was ousted on NPR this morning. This was the now-former Tennessee state representative Justin Jones. He says that when he and others tried to raise the issue of gun safety on the House floor - that the speaker refused to let them be heard. And I want to let you listen to what he told us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JUSTIN JONES: Any time we brought it up, our microphones were cut off. We were ruled out of order. And so we did not have even a venue to voice the grievances of our community. And so we had no other choice but to do something out of the ordinary and to try and stand in solidarity with disrupting business as normal because business as normal was sticking our head in the sand when our children are dying.

KELLY: Representative Barrett, respond to that. This is Jones and other Democrats saying they had no choice. They didn't have any other way to speak. Were they denied any other way to speak?

BARRETT: Well, the fact that Mr. Jones leaves out in that comment - is that the session was actually started with the Democratic caucus, led by Representative Bob Freeman, who represents the district that Covenant School is in.

KELLY: This is the school where the shooting was. Go on.

BARRETT: Yeah - opening the session with a statement about the shooting and about gun violence. It was already addressed and covered. The time period that they were trying to make these comments was during a portion of the session that we call welcoming and honoring, which is limited to simply welcoming people that are in the gallery or honoring folks that may have passed or something along those lines. And so it was out of order for them to try to make political statements during that time period.

KELLY: A lot of people, as you'll know, have been pointing out that the two ousted lawmakers, Mr. Jones and Justin Pearson, are both Black - that the only Democrat who survived last night's vote was Gloria Johnson, who is white. Was race a factor here?

BARRETT: Well, no. And I am a member who voted for the expulsion of the two younger gentlemen and did not vote for the expulsion of Ms. Johnson, and it had absolutely nothing to do with race.

KELLY: But you did not vote to expel, as you say, Representative Johnson. Why not? What was the difference?

BARRETT: Well, I'm an attorney, and Ms. Johnson was the only representative that showed up with legal counsel. And their legal counsel made an opening statement, pointing out deficiencies in the resolution that had been filed that we were voting on. And once those deficiencies were pointed out, in my view as an attorney, then it was incumbent upon the debate to present evidence to correct that and to establish clearly what it was that Ms. Johnson did to rise to the level of expulsion. I just don't think that we established that during the debate.

KELLY: On the substance, the backdrop, again, is this mass shooting in Nashville - six people killed last week at an elementary school. What is the legislature doing to address this?

BARRETT: Well, ironically, yesterday, before any of this mess started, we passed three different pieces of legislation at the very beginning of the session, one of which being a large school security package that allows the state of Tennessee to provide funding to every private and public school in the state to have a SRO officer placed in the school.

KELLY: And sorry, what's an SRO officer?

BARRETT: A student resource officer.

KELLY: OK.

BARRETT: It's a law enforcement officer that serves in the school during the school day.

KELLY: To the thousands of people who've been out on the streets outside the Capitol - students, parents, teachers - demanding restrictions to firearms, especially military-style weapons, I don't know that an SRO is going to satisfy them. To them, you say what?

BARRETT: Well, to them, I say that there are certain things that we can do in the short term, and then there are things that we will have to look at in the long term. This is clearly not an issue that has been created overnight, and it's not an issue that will be resolved overnight. Coming to the House floor as a member of the House of Representatives and demanding immediate action or change - these three individuals know that that's not how legislation gets passed. You know, for them to say that the legislature's not doing anything about it and not addressing the issue is just simply not true.

KELLY: That is Jody Barrett, a Republican and a representative in the Tennessee State House. Thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

BARRETT: Thank you very much. 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.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.