Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson raised about $860,000 through some 31,700 campaign donations after Tennessee Republican lawmakers abruptly moved to expel him and two other Democrats for a gun control protest on the House floor, his campaign said.
The short-lived expulsion propelled the Memphis environmental activist, a fresh face just months into his first term, to become a nationally watched progressive figure who sat in the Oval Office.
His quick fame translated into a wave of campaign cash largely because Republicans opened the door for Pearson and fellow expelled Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville to accept donations from across the country just when the spotlight centered on them. Had Republican lawmakers left the two young Black lawmakers in office, they would’ve been banned from raising cash because a Legislative Session was ongoing.
Instead, in just two months, Pearson attracted, through average donations of about $27, an amount of campaign cash similar to what the Republican House speaker raised all of last year and into early 2023 through his campaign and his political action committee combined. The vast majority of Pearson’s haul — $814,000 — poured in during the week when he had been kicked out, but not yet reinstated.
“To see so much support, particularly from these tens of thousands of small-dollar donations, is a testament to what I believe is a people-powered movement, which is that we all have something to contribute, and our little bits of contribution makes a lot,” Pearson told The Associated Press.
The preliminary fundraising numbers Pearson’s campaign shared with the AP reveal just a partial picture of how much Democrats were able to capitalize after the Black lawmakers were expelled for protesting for GOP to pass gun control measures after the deadly shooting at a Christian school in Tennessee’s capital city. Their white colleague who joined them in protest, Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, was spared by a single vote. Local officials reinstated Pearson and Jones within days.
The Jones and Johnson teams have yet to comment on how much they have raised.
Democrats have been relegated to the superminority in both legislative chambers for years, limiting their recourse mainly to complaining when Republicans want to halt debates quickly, or waive other House rules. Pearson and other Democrats hope the fundraising wave can help them cut into that margin.
Kent Syler, a Middle Tennessee State University political science professor, said Pearson’s fundraising could have an impact, and given how very few competitive legislative districts there are in Tennessee — a net gain of even a few seats could be a win for Democrats.