Odessa Kelly works on the porch of her East Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Before Odessa Kelly ever entered the race for Congress to challenge incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, Nashville politics had been in the midst of a transformation.
Over the previous decade, more Black politicians won notable countywide elections for desirable posts that had long been occupied by mostly older, white men.
Since 2012, 13 African-American candidates have won judicial, clerk or constitutional officer positions, including five instances of challengers unseating incumbents. In 10 of those races, the victor replaced a white man.
The success of Black candidates winning big elections in Davidson County represents a sea change in Nashville politics that insiders say began when Howard Gentry came within a hair of reaching the mayoral runoff in 2007.
It’s against that backdrop that Kelly, a 39-year-old executive director of the advocacy group Stand Up Nashville, challenges Cooper, who has represented Tennessee’s 5th Congressional district since 2003.
The question is whether the success of black candidates in mostly low turnout Democratic primary elections for General Sessions judge or a county clerk job can translate to the high-cost, high stakes Congressional primary in 2022. Despite the success of political standard bearers like Gentry and Davidson County Trustee Erica Gilmore, the latter of whom won three Metro Council elections including an at-large race in 2015, Nashville has never had an African American mayor or congressional representative. Cooper’s brother, John Cooper was elected mayor in 2019.
Asked whether the trend of Black candidates winning countywide races in the last decade has any implications for her race, Kelly paused and said she needed a moment to think about it.
“First of all, I think it is because they had the audacity to run,” Kelly said. “Oppression is something that is internalized. I will say this – a lot of the voting that’s happened in the African American community, not just in Nashville but across the country, has been to mitigate harm. You know, you vote in a way to make sure you can keep yourself protected, which is another reason why I wanted to run for this seat. Cooper has just been a safe vote. He’s never been a vote that has inspired people.”
Kelly told the Tennessee Lookout she believes the reliable Democratic primary voters who have re-elected Cooper the last 20 years “are the individuals who raised me. They’re the ones who instilled in me to get to this point and be a person who can represent them accurately.”
“When you’re speaking about those clerks and winning those positions, of course they’re well-qualified to hold those positions,” Kelly said. “I think it goes back to them doing the work to get the name visibility, the same way I did, I just took a different path. And, them having the work ethic to run and making sure people we trust are sitting in those seats.”
Deliberate political strategy improved diversity in Nashville’s elected officials
John Little said Gentry’s 2007 mayoral election, in which he came just 324 votes shy of reaching the runoff, was a light bulb moment for future Nashville candidates and campaign operatives. If Gentry could come within a hair of being elected mayor, then other candidates could mount legitimate campaigns for judge or the other top elected offices. After more than a decade working on campaigns and serving as an operative, Little won his own race for Nashville school board in 2020. Little, who is Black, previously worked for or volunteered on behalf of five of the African American candidates who won elections since 2012. Gentry was appointed criminal court clerk in 2012 and subsequently won re-election to the job in 2018.
“The common denominator is they were all great candidates, who were willing to work and willing to campaign and develop a message and run the right way,” Little said.
Little is backing Kelly, whom he has known since high school when they attended Stratford High together. He sees Kelly having advantages over previous Cooper challengers because she has distinct voting blocs she could possibly tap into. Kelly, who describes herself as gay, has the early backing of prominent LGBTQ leaders. She may also lay claim to the far left flank of the Democratic primary, the sort of voters who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bids. And, Kelly will have the support of organized labor, which has made clear political headway in Nashville in recent years, culminating in the successful negotiation of a community benefits agreement as part of the financing of the new soccer stadium at the fairgrounds.
“What I like about Odessa is she’s a Nashville native, and she can make the case to progressives, to African-American voters, to the LGBT voters, to labor voters,” Little said.
The success of African-American candidates reflects a political climate in Nashville eager for change, according to attorney David Anthony. He was a finalist for an appointment to the Davidson County Chancery Court during Gov. Bill Haslam’s final weeks in office. The appointment ultimately went to Chancellor Patricia Head Moskal. But, Anthony, a successful bankruptcy and business law attorney who previously worked at Bone McAllester, is viewed as a possible candidate in the future. Anthony said he’s chosen not to run because he doesn’t think the timing is right for another white, male candidate.
“When the time came to run for election for that spot, it didn’t feel right, especially after the political and racial turmoil of 2020,” said Anthony, who is white. “We’ve had generations of white males in these types of positions, and we have a moral duty to promote new and diverse voices to leadership roles.”
Fundraising remains key challenge for new candidates
Jerry Maynard, the former Nashville at-large councilman and current political consultant, said the trend of minority candidates winning those key races didn’t happen by accident. Maynard said it was part of a carefully orchestrated political strategy that included running qualified candidates during elections where top-of-the-ticket politicians were especially seeking the black vote. He pointed to the election of Glenn Funk for district attorney, as well as Metro Council races that also had other countywide elected positions on the ballot among the elections where operatives drove turnout to support black candidates.
Maynard said it’s still early to handicap Kelly’s chances at unseating Cooper since no one knows what the 5th Congressional district will look like until after the redistricting process concludes early next year. In terms of where the race stands now, Maynard said the difficulty for any challenger is fundraising, name recognition and driving voters to the ballot who normally only turnout in presidential election years. Running for congress costs a lot more money than running for General Sessions judge or Register of Deeds.
We can have the best intentions all we want, but unless you're running for United States Senate, you've got to raise money on your own. When you're at the top of the ticket, you're the one who drives the crowds, drives the attention, you've got to raise that money. Some candidates can do it and be successful without raising that money, but it's a very rare thing.
– Jerry Maynard, former Metro Nashville councilman at-large
Last year, challenger Keeda Haynes earned nearly 40 percent of the Nashville vote in her challenge against Cooper, a moderate Democrat in Congress whose platform has shifted to the left in recent years. Haynes won nearly 40 percent despite losing precincts with high black voter turnout such as Cathedral of Praise and the Bordeaux Library early voting site. The success of Cooper in those precincts is evidence that voters of all backgrounds endorse the job he’s done representing them in Congress. Cooper doesn’t fit the description of an absentee elected official out of touch with his constituency. In fact, Cooper’s grassroots ties to the community remain one of his selling points, which may separate him from the Democratic incumbents prone to primary defeats.
“Being at the top of the ticket still means you’ve got to raise that money,” said Maynard, who like Little advised several of the campaigns of black candidates who won countywide elections over the last decade. “We can have the best intentions we all want, but unless you’re running for United States Senate, you’ve got to raise money on your own. When you’re at the top of the ticket, you’re the one who drives the crowds, drives the attention, you’ve got to raise that money. Some candidates can do it and be successful without raising that money, but it’s a very rare thing.”
Kelly’s campaign has backing of Justice Democrats
Kelly is doing her part to answer Maynard’s question about fundraising. Her campaign is backed by the national Justice Democrats group, the same organization that helped propel U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to victory. Founded in 2016 by staffers from Sanders’ presidential campaign, the organization aided Congress members Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman and Ayanna Pressley in their successful primary victories over incumbent Democrats.
The backing of Justice Democrats provides Kelly with the sort of campaign infrastructure needed to pull off the upset. Her campaign is working with well-known Nashville political consulting group Greenlight Media Strategies, which also worked with Haynes in 2018, and is likely to have the support of prominent union groups. The launch of her campaign was covered by CNN, the Washington Post and the Huffington Post in addition to a breaking story by the alternative weekly publication the Nashville Scene.
A spokesman for Kelly’s campaign said she has raised over $150,000 since announcing her candidacy earlier this month.
“The key for Odessa is she has to show herself that she is a viable candidate by raising money,” Maynard said.
From parks department rec center to political organizing
Kelly’s sales pitch to Democratic primary voters reflects her personal background and her professional resume. Prior to her work at Stand Up Nashville, Kelly worked for 12 years for the parks department, including time running the Napier community center. A Nashville native and mother of two, Kelly, 39, is well known in political circles due to her advocacy work mainly on Metro government issues.
In an interview on the front porch of her East Nashville home, Kelly talks about her campaign in terms of being “an opportunity” she never would have thought possible for a “kid from the hood.” After Stratford, Kelly attended Tennessee State University, where she played basketball and graduated with a degree in business administration. She went on to earn a master’s degree in public service management from Cumberland University while working for the park’s department.
Her work at the Napier Community Center and time in the park’s department turned into advocacy work and co-founding Stand Up Nashville, which advocates for issues such as affordable housing and workers’ rights. Kelly said she was approached about running in 2018 by Justice Democrats and organizers locally, but decided against it. She thought about it again in 2019 when Haynes ultimately ran, but again elected not to run since Stand Up Nashville was still getting off the ground.
This cycle was different after what Nashville has been though in the last year, Kelly said. She launches her campaign with issues of equity, the environment and social justice as foundations for her candidacy.
“We had a tornado, a pandemic, a flood and a bombing,” Kelly said. “It was like Exodus around here in 2020. And I will say, it was a reflection of not just who we are as a city, but who we are as a country. We don’t handle crises well, and I think it showed that we really do struggle with putting people’s humanity over people’s pocketbooks. It made me really start to think that the person who sits in the highest offices that we have, they should be oriented in a way that we think about each other and how we are in Nashville. They should be intentional about putting people first. If we can move that seat a little to the left, and make sure that whenever you take a vote or don’t take a vote, your impact is not just felt here in Nashville, but it’s felt all across the country.”
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