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This Week in Statehouse Action: Spring It On edition
It’s good to be back, folks. Missed y’all!
But you know what I didn't miss?
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The terrible things Republican lawmakers have been doing in statehouses.
I may have stepped away from this newsletter for a couple of weeks, but GOP legislatures took no such break from their awful antics.
And yeah, there was some good news this week, and I’ll get to that, but mostly everything continues to burn.
Just yesterday, Republicans in the Tennessee House voted on resolutions to expel three of their Democratic colleagues for having the temerity to protest the GOP’s continued inaction on gun safety in the wake of the murder of six people in a Nashville school shooting less than two weeks ago.
In the days following the shooting, hundreds of teachers, parents, kids, and other concerned citizens flocked to the state capitol to push lawmakers to actually do something to protect children from guns.
The protests were loud (which is, like, kinda the point–otherwise, just write a sternly worded letter, yeah?) and became too raucous for GOP legislative leaders’ taste; Republicans in both chambers removed demonstrators from the galleries.
In the state House, where Republicans enjoy a 75-24 supermajority (okay, it’s actually 75-22 now, but we’ll get to that), three Democratic lawmakers took to the floor themselves last Thursday to protest GOP inaction. They began chanting “No action, no peace” and brought House proceedings to a temporary halt.
This temporary breach of “House decorum” apparently caused GOP House Speaker Cameron Sexon to absolutely lose his shit; he responded to the interruption by comparing the three representatives to the rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol in 2021 and declared their actions an “unacceptable” violation of House rules.
By Monday, Sexon had revoked these Democrats’ ID access to the capitol building and stripped two of the three of their committee assignments.
Also on Monday, three Republicans each filed resolutions to formally expel three Democratic lawmakers from the House: Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville, Justin Pearson of Memphis, and Gloria Johnson of Knoxville.
The expulsion votes against the three–two Black men and a white woman–were scheduled for Thursday.
But also on Thursday — before the expulsion proceedings commenced — the House passed a “school safety” bill that requires all schools in the state to develop safety plans, keep all exterior doors locked (except for the main door), and conduct annual safety drills.
One Democrat quite fairly described the measure as "trying to use aspirin for cancer."
With that bullshit concluded, the House moved on to ejecting three Democrats from the offices to which they were elected just last fall for the heinous crime of Being Loud For A Little While.
And for reals, I’m only editorializing a little there.
The GOP-sponsored expulsion resolutions point out that the state constitution empowers the House to punish members for “disorderly behavior” and for violating House rules, which include “preserving order, adhering to decorum, speaking only with recognition, not crowding around the Clerk’s desk, avoiding personalities, and not using props or displaying political messages.”
They further contend that Jones, Johnson and Pearson “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions.” (Here’s the resolution targeting Pearson, if you’re interested in really digging into the dumb details.)
I managed to watch most of the proceedings, and in all my years of monitoring sessions, it may well have been one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.
But I’m the weirdo who watches that stuff, so here’s a quick recap of what went down over the course of five-ish hours:
The three targeted Democrats gave eloquent defenses of their actions, and the Republicans taking issue with them generally harangued and belittled their colleagues, and then, one by one, each of the three expulsion resolutions received a full floor vote.
Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville was up first; House Republicans voted 72-25 to expel him.
Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis was up last; his expulsion vote was a little closer: 69-26.
Rep. Gloria Johnson survived her expulsion attempt by a single vote.
By the by, Jones and Pearson are young Black men. Johnson is a white woman.
So 70-ish Republicans took it upon themselves to usurp the voices of 140,000-ish Tennesseeans (according to the members, each House district in the state comprises about 70,000 people).
But done is done. What happens next?
Glad you asked!
Now that there are two vacancies in the House, special elections will be scheduled to fill them within 100-107 days; local county officials may appoint interim House members.
Real talk: Both of these men are locks to win back their seats, given the heavy Dem lean of their districts.
So House Republicans will almost certainly soon end up serving alongside the lawmakers they voted to oust.
In Tennessee, members can’t be expelled twice for the same offense, so GOP House leadership couldn’t just up and boot them again (though Thursday’s proceedings pretty well demonstrate that Republicans aren’t hesitant to expel members over flimsy “offenses”).
Both Justins Jones and Pearson are wasting no time in their quests to rejoin the chamber that so shamefully expelled them: Jones immediately booted up his individual fundraising page after his expulsion on Thursday, and Pearson followed suit shortly after his own outster.
If you’ve been reading my newsletter for a while, you may recall that Tennessee Republican lawmakers behaving badly is nothing new.
But actually stripping lawmakers of the positions to which they were duly elected is vanishingly rare.
How rare is it
Well, here are a few things that didn’t get lawmakers expelled from the Tennessee legislature:
Rep. David Byrd was accused of sexual misconduct by three women who were teenagers at the time; the allegations were “common knowledge,” and Byrd was recorded apologizing to one of his accusers.
Rep. Joey Hensley admitted to regularly prescribing opioids to family members (a violation of medical standards that put his physicians license at risk), including his second cousin, which only bears mentioning because they were also having an affair (she left her husband for him).
Then-House Speaker Glen Casada attempted to frame a Black activist for violating a no-contact order with him and participated in some extremely gross text exchanges with his chief of staff about groping and sex. (Casada resigned from the speakership but kept his House seat and otherwise faced no discernible consequences.)
If you guessed that all these cats are Republicans, ding ding ding! You get a prize.
This is not to say that the Tennessee legislature has never expelled a lawmaker.
In fact, it’s happened three whole times since the Civil War.
Last year, Democratic Sen. Katrina Robinson was expelled after her conviction on federal fraud charges.
In 2016, GOP Rep. Jeremy Durham was ousted after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and a 40-page report from the state’s attorney general that detailed harassment claims from interns and politicians.
In 1980, Republican Rep. Robert Fisher was expelled after being convicted of accepting a bribe.
But back to this week’s badness.
Tennessee Republicans are so drunk on their own power that they think there won't be any consequences for expelling two Black members but falling just short of expelling a white member for the same "transgressions."
Thing is … I wish I felt more sure that they're wrong.
Anyway, this week has been a helluva year for news, so we’re not done with awful things yet.
Next stop: North Carolina.
After being elected as a Democrat in a solidly Dem House district just five months ago, Rep. Tricia Cotham is taking her toys to the Republican sandbox – a move that’s not only a betrayal of the folks who elected her as a Democrat, but also gives the GOP functional full control of North Carolina government.
Cotham, who comes from a family of powerful Tar Heel State Dems, was first elected to the state House in 2007. She ran for Congress instead of for reelection in 2016, losing to Rep. Alma Adams. She spent the next five years running a troubled charter school operator and returned to the legislature last fall, representing HD-112.
Cotham’s party switch became official in a Wednesday press conference, at which her new leader, GOP Speaker Tim Moore, made some news of his own by mentioning that he expects congressional, state House, and state Senate maps to all be redrawn – and the reason underpinning North Carolina Republicans’ ability to do that is also the reason that Cotham’s party switch is so incredibly bad for the state.
With Cotham’s party switch, Republicans have officially added a veto-proof House supermajority to the Senate supermajority they already enjoyed.
North Carolina Democrats have been here before – for the first couple of years of Cooper’s first term, Republicans also had legislative supermajorities (Democrats broke them in 2018).
But for the otherwise super-struggly first two years of Cooper’s tenure, Democrats enjoyed a majority on North Carolina’s Supreme Court, and that body used its constitutional authority to keep the GOP’s worst legislative excesses in check.
After last fall’s, elections, though, Republicans now enjoy a 5-2 majority on that court, and the state’s highest court not only likely be super willing to sign off on pretty much whatever the GOP wants to get away with, it’s also likely to allow an ostensibly unconstitutional mid-decade re-redistricting (by which I mean re-gerrymandering).
In December – after the GOP majority was elected but before they assumed their seats on the bench – the state Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering violated the state constitution and thusly struck down the congressional and state Senate maps that Republicans enacted for this decade and ordered they be redrawn for 2024 (N.B. the court did not order a redraw of the House map).
After the Republican court majority was seated in January, however, the SCONC accepted GOP lawmakers' request to rehear the case, a legit unprecedented move that led dissenting Democratic justices to brand it a "display of raw partisanship."
Oral arguments were heard last month, and the court could issue its new decision at any time.
If (…when) the decision goes their way, North Carolina Republicans will certainly use this power to lock in the three-fifths supermajority Cotham's party switch gave them (and certainly make her blue district safely red by way of thanking her) for the remainder of the decade.
Anyway, back to the Tar Heel State’s freshest GOP face:
Cotham’s reasons for pulling this bait-and-switch on her party and her district remain somewhat inscrutable.
In the press conference officially announcing her party switch, Cotham blasted Democrats, accusing them of “villainiz[ing] anyone who has free thought, free judgment, has solutions, and wants to get to work to better our state” and implying that that her now-former party bullied her for disagreeing with her.
A former campaign advisor for Cotham excoriated their former boss, claiming that she didn’t feel properly appreciated by Democrats after returning to the legislature and that “there was no strategy behind” her decision to join the GOP. (The NC rumor mill is full of other, lousier possible reasons for her switch; no actual evidence exists to support them, so I shan’t mention them here, but if she moves in with a certain fellow lawmaker in the near future, we’ll have pretty decent evidence of their veracity.)
A precipitating event here may have been the fact that she missed a crucial veto override vote on a bill loosening gun restrictions last week (she says that she was “receiving scheduled hospital treatment” for her long COVID symptoms but apparently failed to notify her then-fellow Dems), which was extra upsetting at the time, considering that six people had been murdered in a Tennessee school shooting just two days prior.
The policy implications of Cotham’s party switch are both scary and somewhat mysterious.
She’s historically been an outspoken champion of abortion rights, even taking to the House floor in 2015 to discuss her own abortion of a non-viable fetus during debate over a bill that extended the mandated waiting period between an initial consultation and the procedure itself from 24 to 72 hours.
After the draft of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade leaked last spring, she took to Twitter to affirm her support of reproductive freedom: “Now, more than ever we need leaders who will be unwavering and unapologetic in their support of abortion rights. I’ll fight to codify Roe in the #ncga and continue my strong record of defending the right to choose.”
Abortion is currently legal in North Carolina up to 20 weeks into a pregnancy. Republicans have already filed a bill to outlaw it from conception, and while GOP legislative leadership seems to think the measure goes too far, they’ve publicly supported tightening the ban to “possibly around 12 weeks.”
So far, Cotham has declined to say whether her stance on reproductive freedom has changed with her party affiliation.
Real talk: Obviously I’m not a fan of a Dem-to-GOP party switch (especially one that so thoroughly undermines representative democracy), and I’ve no doubt that I’m on the record somewhere celebrating some Republican’s decision to join a Democratic caucus somewhere.
But R-to-D or D-to-R, switching parties just after you were elected is a shitty thing to do to your constituents.
If you were that close to realigning your partisan positions, why would you run as that other thing just five months ago?
Sure, people are absolutely allowed to change their minds about whatever they like, including which party they want to affiliate with.
But the time and place to do that would have been a year ago, when Cotham was a candidate, or a year from now, when Cotham’s running for reelection.
A third option of resigning as a Democrat and then running for the seat in a special election as a Republican isn’t viable in this case, as legislative vacancies in North Carolina are filled by appointment by a member of the last party that held the seat.
Cotham either lied to or betrayed the Democratic voters in her nearly 60%-40% district, and neither option is particularly fair to them.
Okay, so, there are a LOT of bad things that I could go on writing about for a while, like
Idaho passing a first-in-the-nation law that criminalizes transporting pregnant minors across state lines to get an abortion without parental consent.
Florida’s Senate passing a six-week abortion ban (the current allowable period is 15 weeks, which became law just last year, and the Sunshine State already has a host of other reproductive freedom hurdles in place).
Kansas’ GOP supermajorities overriding Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a measure that not only bans transgender girls from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender, but also includes sufficiently vague language around enforcement that could, as some critics claim, lead to invasive means of determining a students biological sex, including genital inspections.
But there’s actually some good news this week, too.
And, of course, there’s Wisconsin.
… which, for once, is a source of some Very Good News!
On Tuesday, the Badger State was home to one of the most consequential elections of the year.
Voters went to the polls to elect the next state Supreme Court justice – a race that would determine partisan control of the court for the next couple of years (justices serve 10-year terms and, barring any unexpected deaths or retirements, won’t be in play again until 2025).
Wisconsin Republicans were understandably quite worried about this race; while they’ve gerrymandered themselves into near-unassailable majorities in the state legislature, Wisconsin is actually a pretty evenly-divided state in terms of overall partisan lean, and sometimes Democrats win statewide races despite the GOP’s best efforts (e.g. Tony Evers, 2018 and 2022; Jill Karofsky, 2020).
GOP lawmakers even tried to play a bit of dirty pool.
As an erudite consumer of the missive, you may recall that, way back in the long-ago time of January, Wisconsin’s legislature voted to place a totally unnecessary (it’s already state law) “advisory referendum” about whether welfare recipients should work to receive benefits on the April 4 ballot. The issue of work requirements for welfare recipients is popular among conservatives, and the Wisconsin GOP was betting that having such a measure sharing ballot space with state Supreme Court candidates would juice right-wing turnout.
Progressive judge Janet Protasiewicz didn’t just defeat conservative Dan Kelly – she absolutely walloped him, 56-44%.
While Democrats (unlike Republicans) don’t have a party organization dedicated to elected judges, a broad coalition of in- and out-of-state progressive and Democratic organizations came together to help win a race that turned out to be not only the most expensive judicial contest in state history, but the most expensive judicial race of all time.
The previous record – set in Illinois in 2004 – was $15.2 million.
The April 4 state Supreme Court contest in Wisconsin clocked in at $45 million.
Protasiewicz’s campaign itself raised over $14.5 million, embarrassing Kelly’s $2.7 million haul. But most of the spending in this contest came from various interest groups and PACs.
Kelly is now a two-time loser for Wisconsin’s highest court (he lost to Karofsky in 2020), and he did not take his defeat especially well.
Kelly not only refused to concede to his opponent, but he also called Justice-elect Protasiewicz a “serial liar” and described her campaign as “beneath contempt” (although Kelly backers were the ones who aired an ad about a Protasiewicz-handled rape case without the consent of the victim, who says that the ads were not only retraumatizing but also contained inaccuracies).
Gotta say, it’s not a great look in terms of judicial temperament — seems like Wisconsin voters made a good call in terms of not having a whiny, pouty, petty jurist deciding the state’s most important cases.
… which brings me to exactly why this win was so important for progressives both in Wisconsin and across the country.
Salient arguments are being made that Protasiewicz’s vocal support for reproductive rights were a big part of her big win, and that talk won’t be relegated to the dustbin of campaign rhetoric.
Wisconsin happens to be the only state that Joe Biden carried in 2020 that has a total ban on abortion in place (thanks to an 1849 law that went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade).
Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul has filed a legal challenge to the ban, and the case will almost certainly make its way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
And then there’s the whole democracy thing.
The GOP’s stranglehold on Badger State politics dates back to 2010, when Republicans abused their legislative majorities to implement extreme partisan gerrymanders of the state’s electoral maps.
When they repeated the feat after the 2020 Census, the resulting impasse between statehouse Republicans and the Democratic governor allowed the conservative-majority state Supreme Court to take over the process.
Predictably, a 4-3 ruling favored the GOP, and also predictably, Republicans rode those maps to artificial majorities in the legislature yet again (and a supermajority in the state Senate, to boot) in 2022.
Protasiewicz herself described those maps as “rigged,” and a progressive group has already promised to ask the Supreme Court to revisit this decision as soon as Protasiewicz is seated on August 1.
The court could order that new, fair district maps be drawn, which, yes, would give Democrats a shot at winning power in the state legislature, but would also restore Wisconsin voters’ capacity to enjoy a genuinely representative state government.
Speaking of representative government, this 4-3 progressive majority court would also hear any electoral challenges that may arise from the 2024 presidential election.
Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has pretty broad jurisdiction, so Badger Staters might even get to see the court strike down Act 10, the infamous 2011 law that stripped Wisconsin’s public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
So yeah, that’s great, right?
Except, because it’s Wisconsin, I’ve got to leave you with a little fly in your ointment:
That Wisconsin Senate supermajority I mentioned above gives them the power to impeach elected officials–like, say, state Supreme Court justices.
Shortly before the April 4 election, a Republican candidate for the state Senate floated the notion of impeaching the as-yet-unelected justice.
He’s since backed down, but seriously, these are Wisconsin Republicans – literally anything that will help them stay in power is on the table.
That’s quite enough drama for one week.
Thank you, as ever, for reading, and for welcoming me back after my hiatus.
Also, as ever, feel free to hit me up with questions, thoughts, complaints, hopes, dreams, and … I dunno, recipes?
Hang in there.
We need you.
Thanks for reading This Week in Statehouse Action! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.