Note: This piece was originally published on Primary School's Substack. Labyrinth supports the brilliant work done by Primaries, but does not necessarily endorse all views articulated in this piece.
5 April 2021
Née Primaries for Progress, the fourth release by Primary School to be published in Labyrinth covers the cover a variety of recent developments. Check out the Primary School Substack.
The first Justice Democrat of the 2022 election cycle has thrown her hat into the ring. Meet Odessa Kelly, a Nashville organizer who just launched her campaign to represent Tennessee’s 5th congressional district, currently held by Jim Cooper. We’re of two minds about this. First, let’s make the case for optimism.
There is no perfect candidate, but Odessa Kelly comes close. A county employee and SEIU member, Kelly first rose to prominence in 2017, as the Metro Council (Nashville/Davidson County’s consolidated city-county government) was mulling allowing Major League Soccer to build a new stadium. She helped found Stand Up Nashville, a coalition of activist organizations and unions who wanted that stadium to come paired with commitments to the community. After a bitter fight, they won. For her efforts, one local magazine recognized her as the “Best Activist” in the city. She continued her work with Stand Up Nashville throughout the next couple years, winning major victories and accolades in the process. In 2020, she was named the group’s executive director, and has continued to fight for the city. For rent control, against Amazon, all the right fights to be picking right now. She is an obvious fit for this district—in fact, she was so obvious, Justice Democrats were looking for her to run in 2020, but she wasn’t ready to. Now that she is, she’s entering with multiple Council endorsements, and an immediate fundraising windfall.
“Big government doesn’t work. Great Society doesn’t work. New Deal doesn’t even work. We’ve got to have a new way for government to work cost-effectively.” - Jim Cooper
Jim Cooper is exactly the sort of relic of the past you would not expect to still be hanging around. He’s the last old-school Southern Blue Dog in Congress: the son of an ardent segregationist former governor, Jim was educated at all the best schools and settling down with a law practice in Nashville when, in 1982, the state’s conservative Democratic legislature drew a new congressional district, an ugly, rural strip of gerrymandering that placed its eventual occupant in three of the state’s media markets. Despite living nowhere near it, Cooper ran for the district and won. Thus began a 12-year stint in Congress, during which he accrued a conservative record, and is best known for helping kill Hillary and Bill Clinton’s 1994 healthcare reform proposal. Here’s a good account of his role in leading the ConservaDem charge against what he called “the mother of all entitlements”. Clinton staffer Mike Lux has said that, from his perspective inside the White House, Cooper was the single Democrat who did more than any other to kill the reform.
After torpedoing an attempt at expanding healthcare coverage, Cooper lost a Senate race disastrously in 1994 and went back to law for a while. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that long until, in 2002, another House district—Nashville’s TN-05—opened up. This time, he even lived in it! He had money and name recognition, while labor split between his two main opponents. Thus, Jim Cooper waltzed back into Congress. You may think that going from representing a conservative rural district that voted for Reagan by wide margins to representing a more liberal, urban, and diverse district might change his politics. It seems like it did a little. The Cooper of the 80s would be the most conservative Democratic member of Congress, whereas the Cooper of today is merely in the top 10 or so. We won’t bore you with everything he’s done wrong in Congress since then - he’s a Blue Dog, and a permanent occupant of the roll call lists you check on every time you go “wait, 8 Democrats voted for that???”. The fact that Nancy Pelosi managed to get him to vote for the ACA is a testament to her once-in-a-generation vote-whipping talent.
Cooper’s only in his late 60s, but he’s already a relic of a past that no longer has much relevance to the present day, and an old white guy in a rapidly diversifying city famous for its youth. While Nashville was, for a while, behind the curve in terms of electing progressives, that has changed recently, and in 2020, Cooper only won 57-41 against Keeda Haynes, a progressive public defender who raised $150,000 and relied on local organizations to carry her, since national ones weren’t biting. Kelly is poised to have all the support Haynes missed out on, and it’s not like Cooper was caught sleeping last time - he was prepared for Haynes, it was just that he contains all the problems of Eliot Engel and Henry Cuellar in one convenient package. Kelly is his perfect foil. We’re willing to make the bold prediction that Kelly may even be more likely to win this district than he is.
Except there may not be a district to win. Welcome to the case for pessimism: it’s trivially easy to gerrymander Nashville. You can easily draw a map in which TN-09 (Memphis) is the only district in the state where Trump even got under 60% of the vote in in 2020, all while every incumbent gets a district that preserves most of their old district and won’t cause primary worries*. Republicans absolutely have the authority to do that. There is no state law stopping them, and there is no federal protection for this district because a solid majority of the population is white and non-Hispanic.
So why didn’t Republicans do this in 2011, then? Unclear. We know they were considering it, but they backed out at the last moment. Republicans, at the time, had three new incumbents, all of whom had flipped districts that were partially in the Nashville metro. Maybe they didn’t want to piss off lawmakers who were still worried about primaries, or they weren’t convinced that rural Tennessee was going to stay as red as it went in 2010, and chickened out. But rural Tennessee has only gotten redder, and their incumbents are more secure now. There is no reason not to go for it, and they almost certainly will if they’re allowed to. The very existence of a Nashville congressional district is inextricably tied to the fate of HR-1, which bans gerrymandering at the federal level, and creates nonpartisan commissions to draw the maps instead. We wish we could say that we’re certain HR-1 is going to pass, but it will be a fight. Passing it requires nuking the filibuster, and even the bill itself may not have Joe Manchin fully on board. The success of HR-1, and by extension Odessa Kelly’s campaign, is yet to be determined.
*We know this because we’ve drawn these districts ourselves using Dave’s Redistricting Application, a free and accessible online tool. On principle, we won’t be publishing any hypothetical Republican gerrymanders, just for the one-in-a-million chance it gives someone an idea, but you can find your own online if you want.
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