By Ben Kamisar
NASVHILLE, TN — Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, one of the three Democrats reprimanded this year for leading a protest against gun violence on the state House floor, has launched a bid for the U.S. Senate in her deep-red home state.
Johnson made the announcement outside a Knoxville school where one student fatally shot another when she was a teacher in 2008 to argue that “nothing has been done” since.
“We’ve got to do better, we can do better and Tennesseans deserve better. We have got to do something, and well, this is the something I decided to do,” Johnson said about her Senate bid.
She went onto criticize Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn, whom Johnson hopes to face if she wins the Democratic primary next year, accusing her of standing in the way of progress.
“We need to make sure that every family has access to affordable health care, every kid has a great school in every district, it shouldn’t matter where you live, everyone should have a great school. We need to raise wages so people earn a living wage, and we need to increase our union involvement because that’s what built the middle class,” she added.
Johnson gained prominence in the state after she and two other colleagues took to the state House floor with a bullhorn to criticize what they perceived as legislative inaction after a mass shooting at a Nashville school in March. Republicans blasted the three for using a bullhorn and for speaking when not formally recognized — one top Republican compared the protest to an attempted “insurrection” — leading to votes to expel the three lawmakers.
While the House voted to expel the two state lawmakers who joined Johnson, she was not kicked out. Johnson is white, while the two expelled are Black, leading Democratic lawmakers and other critics of the GOP’s actions to question whether three were treated differently because of their race.
Republicans have denied those charges, pointing to the fact Johnson survived expulsion by just one vote and arguing that the fates of the three lawmakers differed because of their differing conduct during the protest.
Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, center, Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, back left and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, huddle on the floor of the House chamber Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee Republicans are seeking to oust the three House Democrats for using a bullhorn to shout support for pro-gun control protesters in the House chamber. (AP Photo/George Walker IV) (George Walker IV / AP)More
The two other lawmakers, state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, won their seats back in special elections last month. Jones was again reprimanded last week for violating new House rules meant to discourage lawmakers from discussing unrelated topics.
Johnson will be joined by Pearson and Jones as she announces her campaign in events across the state Tuesday, according to a press release.
The saga raised Johnson’s profile among Democrats across the country, and it gives her a jolt of momentum as she embarks on a difficult task: dethroning Blackburn in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator in more than three decades, since before then-Sen. Al Gore resigned to serve as vice president in 1993.
Blackburn won her first term in the Senate in 2018 by more than 10 points over former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who Democrats wooed into the race in the hope that he was practically the only candidate with the experience and resume to keep the state competitive. Since then, then-President Donald Trump won the state in 2020 by about 23 percentage points, and incumbent Republican Gov. Bill Lee won re-election in 2022 by 32 percentage points.
In a statement reacting to Johnson’s bid, Blackburn campaign spokesperson Abigail Sigler blasted Johnson as a “radical socialist” who is “as woke as they come.”
“While Senator Blackburn is working hard to fight back against Biden’s woke agenda, state Rep. Johnson is pushing that divisive, destructive agenda here in Tennessee,” Sigler said.
“Tennesseans deserve a United States senator who is committed to fighting for our conservative values. Senator Blackburn will continue her record of getting things done and fighting for Tennessee families,” she continued.