(L–R) Expelled Rep. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis), expelled Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville), and Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) are recognized by the audience at Fisk University before Vice President Kamala Harris arrives in Nashville, Tenn., on April 7, 2023. (George Walker IV/AP Photo)
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TENNESSEE—Voters in Tennessee’s two largest cities reelected the two Democratic representatives who, in April, were ousted from the state’s General Assembly after protesting for stricter gun control in the wake of the Covenant School shooting in late March.
Nashville Rep. Justin Jones and Memphis Rep. Justin Pearson were both easily reelected in the special elections held Thursday, Aug. 3.
The two men, plus Rep. Gloria Johnson, who was spared by one vote from the same fate, gained national attention after their ousters and attempted ouster, attending the White House Correspondents Dinner, meeting with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office, and being featured on various national news programs including Good Morning America.
Ms. Johnson is also rumored to launch a campaign later this month to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn next year, according to Politico and other local outlets.
Voters in Nashville also had the city’s general election to contend with, electing new Metropolitan Government council members and sending the top two vote-getters in the mayoral election to a September run-off. Whoever ends up winning the mayoral race will become the fourth mayor the city has had in the past five years.
In Nashville, Rep. Jones was challenged by the Republican Party nominee Laura Nelson for the District 52 seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives.
The Associated Press (AP) called the race shortly after 8:00 p.m. local time, with half of precincts reporting. As of 9:50 p.m. local time, with all precincts in, Jones received 5,218, compared to Nelson’s 1,494 votes, according to data released by the Davidson County Election Commission.
Moving west to Memphis, Rep. Pearson was challenged for the District 86 seat by Independent candidate Jeff Johnston.
The AP called the race shortly before 8:30 p.m. As of 9:00 p.m. local time with all precincts reporting, Mr. Pearson received 2,439 votes, compared to Mr. Johnston’s 157 votes, according to preliminary data from the Shelby County Election Commission.
Justin Pearson and his supporters march to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners meeting in Memphis, Tenn., on April 12, 2023. (Chris Day/The Commercial Appeal via AP)
They were both reinstated to their seats in the interim by their respective local governments. Both of the candidates will fulfill the rest of their original terms that they were elected to in 2022’s elections, and will have to run for office again next year.
Of the field for Nashville’s top job, a total of 12 candidates had their hats in the very crowded ring on the final ballot, although some of the candidates threw their support behind other candidates prior to election day.
The mayoral race for the combined city-county Metropolitan government in Nashville is nonpartisan, although the city has been reliably Democratic in state and federal races for decades, as well as in newly partisan school board elections last year.
Mayoral candidate Freddie O'Connell. (Courtesy of Freddie O'Connell Campaign)
The two candidates headed to a run-off are Freddie O’Connell, a current Metro council member who courted the progressive vote, and Alice Rolli, notably the only viable Republican candidate in the race, who worked in former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. Mr. O’Connell received 27,470 votes to Ms. Rolli’s 20,458 votes.
Ms. Rolli likely benefited from the splitting of the rest of the liberal vote, as several other candidates with liberal views were in the race, including an economic development official under the last three mayors, two Democratic state senators, and a Democratic Davidson County property assessor.
Ms. Rolli worked in Mr.Haslam’s economic development office under now-U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) and managed Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander’s 2014 reelection campaign.
The same situation shook out in Music City in 2015, where a Republican candidate advanced to a runoff, but was defeated by 10 points by former Mayor Megan Barry, the city’s first female mayor.
Ms. Rolli, if she won and stayed in office for her full term, would be the first conservative mayor in recent history and the first woman to ever finish a full term leading Nashville.
Priorities for Nashvillians
Nashville’s next mayor will have to navigate a relationship with the state government that has been contentious over the past few years.
The relationship has soured as the state legislature has passed laws that have and could fundamentally change the city, while the city has decried the actions as government overreach and several of the legislative measures are being argued in court.
Other issues that have been the focus of debates include affordable housing as well as public transit, both of which are lacking in Music City.
Ms. Barry, who resigned from office in 2018 amid a scandal involving an extramarital affair with her security detail and pleading guilty to felony theft, ran on a campaign of public transportation for the city.
She led a campaign and eventual ballot referendum, which was voted down just months after she resigned, which would have raised sales taxes and commercial taxes in order to add light rail and rapid bus transit lines among main corridors in the city.
Nashville is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States and as such public transportation has become a central part of many public policy discussions.
What Led to Such a Crowded Race
Current Mayor John Cooper announced earlier this year he would not seek a second term, following a tenure of contentious decisions by city officials and tragedies.
He led the city through the approval of a new multi-billion dollar stadium for the Tennessee Titans, the contentious negotiations to host the 2024 Republican Convention which the city eventually decided against hosting, tornadoes, a Christmas Day bombing in 2020, and most recently the Covenant School shooting.
“Now [after] a great deal of thought and prayer and talking with my wonderful wife, I have decided to not seek reelection as Nashville’s mayor,” he told reporters in a January press conference. “I have no doubt there are and will be many exceptional people applying for the job. They should. We need them to ... I hope Nashville's next mayor will use the platform we have created and build on it."
Adding to the list of mayors over the past five years, Ms. Barry was succeeded by interim Mayor David Briley, who went on to win a special election to fill the remainder of her term. He was then defeated by Mr. Cooper by nearly 40 points.
Mr. Cooper was the first candidate to defeat an incumbent mayor seeking reelection in the history of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, which was established in 1963.
While Nashville’s mayoral elections are nonpartisan, Mr. Cooper, Mr. Briley, and Ms. Barry all declared they were Democrats. He did not endorse any of the candidates running for his seat.