Justice Democrats, the progressive group that launched Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic 2018 campaign, made its first splash of the 2022 midterms on Monday by endorsing Nashville activist Odessa Kelly as she kicked off her Democratic primary challenge to longtime Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper.
Kelly is the co-founder and executive director of Stand Up Nashville, a labor-aligned coalition of community groups. If she were to defeat Cooper – a centrist first elected in 1982 and now in his 10th term since returning to the House in 2003 – and win his seat, Kelly would become the first gay, Black woman to serve in Congress.
“I’ve watched kids grow up in this city and felt their fear when we didn’t know what would come next,” Kelly said in a statement. “We need more pathways out of poverty, and the status quo is no longer good enough. I know how to build coalitions that get results, and I’m running for Congress so that we can make bold, ambitious change at the national level.”
After Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, Justice Democrats helped elect freshman Reps. Jamaal Bowman of New York, Cori Bush of Missouri and Marie Newman of Illinois in 2020. All three first-term lawmakers ousted a moderate or conservative incumbent Democratic House member on their way to victory in November.
Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District, with its hub in Nashville, is one of the few Democratic strongholds in a state that backed former President Donald Trump with more than 60% of the vote last year – making it a prime target for Justice Democrats, who have mostly focused their resources on boosting progressive insurgent campaigns in safe blue districts.
“As someone who has spent her life as a public servant and a community organizer, Odessa Kelly is exactly the kind of Democrat we need in Congress,” Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas said in a statement. “Our grassroots movement has shocked the nation in two cycles and we are prepared to do it again. It’s time to usher in a new generation of progressive leadership into the Democratic Party.”
Cooper, whose political career stretches back nearly four decades, is the brother of Nashville Mayor John Cooper and son of former Tennessee Gov. Prentice Cooper. He also served in the House from 1983-1995. Cooper ran unopposed in the 2020 general election.
In her campaign kick-off video, Kelly spoke about her own father’s work at a community center in East Nashville.
“The pride my daddy had for his work in this city and the joy I felt growing up in this community – that made me who I am,” Kelly says, pledging to reject corporate PAC money and back “Medicare for All, housing justice and Green New Deal union jobs.”
In her announcement, Kelly criticized Cooper – who had an estimated personal net worth of more than $16 million in 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics – for taking donations from “corporate PACs representing weapons manufacturers and real estate developers.”
During her time as the leader of Stand Up Nashville, Kelly has been on the front line of a series of campaigns to push for more equitable representation in city government. The group formed its Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute in order to help create a pipeline for a new, more diverse class of candidates.
Kelly’s organization also brokered a “community benefits agreement” in 2018 as part of the deal to build a new stadium for Nashville SC, a Major League Soccer club now entering its second season. The agreement provided for affordable housing on the development site, a starting wage for stadium workers above $15 an hour, and the formation of a committee to assure the agreement’s various provisions are met.