Kelly Cooper

Odessa Kelly and Rep. Jim Cooper

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) has been ringing alarm bells about upcoming congressional redistricting. He tried to pass federal legislation that would require independent commissions to draw district lines, rather than partisan state legislatures. Eight states already go that route for congressional redistricting, but Tennessee isn’t one. Cooper’s bill is now included in HR-1, the voting rights bill stuck in the U.S. Senate, and time is running out — the lines are expected to be drawn within the coming months. Now he’s working the phones to get the business community involved, asking them to apply pressure on the state legislature.

“I’ll do anything, I’ll do weddings, bar mitzvahs, just give me a chance to tell you what’s going on in Tennessee,” Cooper says. Republicans have shored up a supermajority in state government, and taken control of election commissions and the Chancery Court, while the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear it won’t stop partisan gerrymandering by states. So the way Cooper sees it, when the legislature presents the plan, there will be no way to legitimately appeal. 

He’s worried that Republicans will divide Nashville into multiple districts so that slices of the city will be pieces of new districts that can stretch out into the state to garner the appropriate number of constituents and ensure Republican wins. And just like that, his solidly Democratic district would be replaced by new Republican districts. 

“I’m feeling like Paul Revere,” he says. “The Republicans are coming to chop up Nashville. State and federal courts are no longer an option. For 10 years Nashville will be chopped up.” He points to cities like Austin, Raleigh and Salt Lake City — all places where it’s happened.

It’s been a rough year for Cooper. He lost Martha, his wife of 35 years, in February, and his longtime chief of staff Lisa Quigley recently left. He’s keeping busy, sitting on four House committees — most members of Congress sit on one or two, occasionally three — and chairing the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, which oversees strategic weapons, ballistic missile defense, space programs and Department of Energy national security programs. In his spare time, he’s raising campaign funds and fighting anticipated gerrymandering. He tends to be a moderate on issues — he has always been in favor of climate legislation and ultimately signed on to co-sponsor the Green New Deal even though he didn’t initially support it; he’s aghast at former President Trump but willing to work across the aisle; and he has championed a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. 

Local progressives say sure, he works on lofty armed services, intelligence, budget and oversight issues, but he hasn’t done enough to help folks in the district. Cooper appears to be responding to the criticism: His twice-weekly newsletter on Congress is being scrapped, with an explanation that constituents want to know what he’s doing for them. He will now offer “The Wrap Up,” a weekly briefing centering on his own work. 

But ask him about Odessa Kelly, the progressive Democratic primary challenger who has thrown her hat in the ring for the Aug. 4 primary, and the man who has been serving since the year she was born doesn’t even comment on whether she’s a formidable opponent. “It’s premature,” he says. “Nobody knows where the districts will be, what district I’ll be running in or what district she’ll be running in.” Others may step into the race after the district lines are set. The filing deadline is April 7.

It’s also likely the Republicans will choose to “pack” the liberal vote into two districts — how it stands now — and keep the rest of the state delegation for themselves. Despite the uncertainty, Kelly is forging ahead. Justice Democrats, the national organization that backs progressive primary challengers like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez against “out-of-touch Democratic incumbents,” is supporting Kelly, and is partly responsible for her remarkable first-quarter fundraising haul of $302,000

Kelly comes from the world of community organizing. She is the executive director of Stand Up Nashville, the group that surveyed locals about their needs and then successfully pressed owners of Nashville’s MLS soccer team to sign a community benefits agreement to ensure that locals would benefit from a new stadium. The binding promise includes affordable housing, jobs with a minimum wage of $15.50 an hour, a hiring program that would help those with barriers to employment, a child care facility, and a new community advisory committee to see to it that they keep their promises. It is a historic agreement not seen on this scale before in the state.

While Kelly hasn’t hired a campaign manager yet, there is momentum behind her. Before she even announced her candidacy, a small army of active progressives in the city banded together to produce a People’s Agenda that includes Medicare for All and reallocating policing funds to mental health intervention and other progressive programs. They’ve conferred online, they’ve protested outside Cooper’s office — they want change. Kelly has already engaged 50 volunteers to research, canvass, phone bank and text.

But even if the packing scenario plays out, and Nashville/Davidson County, Dickson County and most of Cheatham County remain as Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District, it’s questionable whether there are enough progressives in the district to topple Cooper. In a poll this spring of Davidson County residents, only 12 percent described themselves as “very liberal.” Another 23 percent said they were “liberal.” Vanderbilt Poll co-director John Geer says that even if half of the liberal group would favor a progressive Democratic candidate over a moderate one, that would mean just less than a quarter of Davidson County adults are there. The other counties in the district are more conservative.

However, the poll asked residents — not voters. Elections are about who actually turns out. Cooper has served in Congress for more than three decades. He’s a member of a long-standing political family, the son of former Tennessee Gov. Prentice Cooper, and brother of current Nashville Mayor John Cooper. He’s won by great margins and earned high marks. He has a 65 percent approval rating in Davidson County, and a 77 percent approval rating among self-described Democrats. In the county’s Black community, he gets 62 percent approval, according to Geer. Keeda Haynes, Cooper’s 2020 primary challenger, earned just under 35,000 votes in the primary to Cooper’s 50,000

Kelly thinks she can do better. For one thing, she was born and raised in Nashville. (Haynes was born in Franklin and moved to Nashville in 2006.) She says she can relate to working-class constituents who have been ignored while the city exploded. “Everything I heard growing up was, ‘Get into the middle class,’ ’’ she says. “If you work hard, make good grades, stay out of trouble, get a degree, the world is your oyster.” It turned out not to be true. Kelly was raised in East Nashville, attended Tennessee State University on a full scholarship for basketball, and today — with a master’s degree in public service management under her belt and two teenagers — she can’t afford to buy a house in her old neighborhood. She says the problem is widespread, and to fix it leaders have to help people who have been “historically left out.” 

Cooper, she says, has a different frame through which to see the world, because he has been “rich since birth.” “He doesn’t need any [government help] to live in this country, you know? But that’s not the story for everyone. Black, brown, white, working-class people — there are so many people out here who are hurting. I do not think Cooper understands that well.”

If she makes it to Congress, Kelly may be the first openly gay Black woman with a seat at that esteemed table. That’s a big if. 

Like what you read?

Click here to make a contribution to the Scene and support local journalism!