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New York Times
8 Apr 2023

NextImg:A Week of Youthful Activism Sends Out Political Shockwaves

A surge of youthful activism powered major liberal victories in Wisconsin and Chicago and a boisterous legislative uprising in Tennessee this week, as Republicans absorbed a string of damaging political blows, beginning with the arraignment of their leading presidential contender on criminal charges in Manhattan.

The drumbeat of news seemed to batter the G.O.P.’s brand by the hour: Donald J. Trump became the first American president to be led into a courtroom to hear his indictment. Voters in Wisconsin handed Democrats a landslide victory and a one-seat majority on the state’s Supreme Court, with the fate of abortion and Wisconsin’s heavily gerrymandered political map at stake.

And liberal activists helped one of their own rise to mayor of Chicago, defeating a more moderate Democrat who had the backing of Republicans in and around the nation’s third-largest city, and overcoming conservative-tinged arguments about crime and policing.

A coda, or perhaps an own-goal, came on Thursday in red-state Tennessee, when the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature voted to expel two young, Black male representatives for their roles in leading youthful protests calling for gun control, after a mass shooting at a Christian school in Nashville, but narrowly allowed a white female lawmaker who had stood with them to remain.

The three Tennessee state representatives who were subject to expulsion votes on Thursday, Mr. Pearson, Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson. Ms. Johnson was the only one not expelled.Credit...Jon Cherry for The New York Times

In so doing, Tennessee Republicans achieved little besides catapulting the representatives, Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, as well as Gloria Johnson, onto the national stage: Both men could be reappointed to their seats by officials in their Nashville and Memphis districts as soon as next week, as they await special elections in which they are favored to win.

“If my job, along with other members of the R.N.C., is to protect the brand of the Republican Party, this didn’t help,” said Oscar Brock, a Republican National Committeeman from Tennessee. “You’ve energized young voters against us. Worse than squandering support, you’ve made enemies where we didn’t need them.”

To be sure, there were bright spots for Republicans: They won a special election giving them a supermajority in the Wisconsin Senate, which entails broad impeachment powers. And a Democrat’s switch to the G.O.P. in the North Carolina House of Representatives handed Republicans a two-chamber legislative supermajority in the only Southern state where abortion is broadly legal, granting Republicans in Raleigh the ability to override the vetoes of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

But in an odd-numbered year and a season when Americans are more taken with daffodils than with politics, the clamor of youthful activism and anger may have left the more lasting impression.

“The right wing understands that time is not on their side,” said Representative Maxwell Frost, 26, a Florida Democrat who last year became the first member of Generation Z to be elected to the House. “What we saw in Chicago and Wisconsin, and what we saw in the backlash in Tennessee, is young people rising, and all of this played out in one week.”

A “die-in” at the Tennessee State Capitol on Thursday. “It was a shameful day, but it will also wake people up, especially young people,” said Steve Cohen, a Tennessee congressman.Credit...Jon Cherry for The New York Times

Few Republicans defended the decision by their compatriots in Tennessee to try to silence elected Democrats by chucking them from the state house. Democrats, for their part, seized the moment.

Representative Steve Cohen, the lone Democrat in Tennessee’s congressional delegation after the gerrymandering of district lines before last November’s election, recalled the one and only time he got any attention from the national press as a member of the State Legislature: with a vote against displaying the Ten Commandments. Even so, he said, it amounted to just a quote in Time magazine. Mr. Pearson and Mr. Jones became national celebrities over the course of 24 hours.

“It was a shameful day, but it will also wake people up, especially young people,” Mr. Cohen said.

Worrywarts in either party looking for ill omens could find plenty.

Mr. Trump’s arraignment on felony charges that he falsified business records to hide hush money to a porn star in the final days of the 2016 election set off a bonanza of fund-raising for his campaign and rallied many Republicans around his third run for the presidency. And a spate of new polling pointed to Mr. Trump’s improving competitiveness against President Biden in 2024.

Not even his rivals for the Republican nomination dared question the indictment’s underlying allegations that Mr. Trump engaged in extramarital dalliances with a pornographic film actress and a Playboy Playmate.

“No matter how tawdry the charges and whether true or false, making a sexual encounter between two consenting adults the focal point of a criminal indictment or an impeachment strikes most Americans as an abuse of power and a distraction,” said Ralph Reed, a veteran political strategist and voice of Christian conservatives.

Janet Protasiewicz at her election night party in Wisconsin after an easy victory for a Supreme Court seat.Credit...Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

One of the week’s through-lines was the awakening of the young, who are often neglected because, for all their activism, they often fail to vote. Young voters were not only crucial to the easy victory of Janet Protasiewicz, the liberal candidate for Wisconsin’s open Supreme Court seat, they also powered the liberal candidate for mayor of Chicago, Brandon Johnson, to an upset victory over the more moderate law-and-order candidate, Paul Vallas.

And in the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, the chants of young protesters boomed through the hallways before, during and after the votes to oust the two state representatives, Mr. Jones, 27, and Mr. Pearson, 29.

The drama in Nashville on Thursday was incendiary on multiple levels, a political cauldron of young versus old, Black versus white, a marginalized minority against an overwhelming majority — all playing out against the backdrop of gun violence in schools.

Then there were the issues: guns and abortion.

Addressing her party’s defeat in Wisconsin a day later on Fox News, Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, conceded, “Where you’re losing by 10 points, there is a messaging issue. Abortion is still an issue, and we can’t allow the Democrats to define Republicans on it.”

Her comments, however, elicited a storm of protest from anti-abortion voices in her party, which has showed no letup in its push for abortion curbs. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida and a potential rival of Mr. Trump’s for the presidential nomination, appears intent on signing a bill in Tallahassee to ban abortions after six weeks. Idaho’s Republican governor, Brad Little, signed legislation this week prohibiting minors from traveling outside the state for an abortion without parental consent.

Still, Ms. McDaniel stood by her comments: “We can’t put our heads in the sand going into 2024,” she said on Fox News.

Mr. Brock, the national committeeman from Tennessee, similarly warned his party on its response to gun violence after the shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville left six dead, including three children. Republicans, he said, can stay true to the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms and still respectfully listen to the arguments for more gun-safety regulation.

“Even in Tennessee, we have swing districts in the State House and Senate,” he said, “and if you’ve angered tens of thousands of students and presumably their parents, you could theoretically expose yourself to a united front.”