Cooper bowing out of congressional run after 5th District “dismembered”

By: - January 25, 2022 6:11 pm
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, pictured at a Sept. 11 community service event, was a congressional sponsor of the Child Tax Credit program. (Photo: John Partipilo)

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, pictured at a Sept. 11 community service event, was a congressional sponsor of the Child Tax Credit program. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A day after the Tennessee House voted to split Davidson County into three districts, veteran Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper announced he will not seek another term.

In a Twitter post, Cooper said he won’t run again after 32 years in office, blaming Republicans’ plan to ignore his requests and break up Nashville. He thanked Nashville voters for making him the third longest-serving member of Congress, with periods serving the old 4th Congressional District, mainly a rural area that covered his former Shelbyville home, and the 5th District, which has been based in Nashville for years.

“Despite my strength at the polls, I could not stop the General Assembly from dismembering Nashville. No one tried harder to keep our city whole,” Cooper said in the tweet. “I explored every possible way, including lawsuits, to stop the gerrymandering and to win one of the three new congressional districts that now divide Nashville. There’s no way, at least for me in this election cycle, but there may be a path for other worthy candidates.”

Cooper said he will return individual contributions he received for the 2022 race. So far, he had only one opponent, Odessa Kelly, who criticized the redistricting plan Monday, calling it a return to Jim Crow laws.

Potential candidates are Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, former House Speaker Beth Harwell and Franklin Republican Robby Starbuck, formerly of California, who has already said he plans to run for Congress.

The House and Senate both passed plans to split Davidson County into the 5th, 6th and 7th congressional districts, the latter two represented by Republican U.S. Reps. John Rose and Mark Green.

Republican map drawers contend the plan is constitutional and follows federal and state laws. But Democrats say it dilutes Nashville’s Black voting population by splitting it into three parts with rural areas stretching from the Tennessee River in West Tennessee to the Appalachian Mountains. 

The minority party says it is planning to file a lawsuit to seek changes in federal court.

Dick Williams, executive director of Common Cause, a good government advocacy group, said Tuesday it was clear Cooper was planning on running until his district was dismantled. Williams’ group doesn’t endorse candidates, but he said he “had problems” with the Legislature dividing Davidson County.

“It’s interesting the reapportionment is gonna influence a longstanding, reasonably popular candidate into not running,” Williams said.

Democrats complained loudly that the move would water down Cooper’s district and make it harder for him to win re-election, potentially bolstering Republicans’ lead in the legislation to 8-1 from 7-2.

Cooper went before legislative redistricting committees at least twice, pleading with them not to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Davidson County is the base for the 5th District, which includes Dickson and part of Cheatham County, and is one of the leading tax revenue producers in the state. Cooper argues that keeping Davidson County whole will continue that strength whereas splitting it could hurt politically and economically.

Republicans argued that breaking up Davidson will give it three representatives in Congress, even if none of them live in Davidson County.

The new 5th combines southern and eastern Nashville with west Wilson, half of Willliamson, Marshall, Maury and Lewis counties.

The new 6th District stretches from downtown and west Nashville toward the Tennessee River in West Tennessee. The new 7th takes in northeast Davidson and runs to the Appalachian Mountains in East Tennessee.

The Senate is set to consider a state House redistricting map this week, then plans for the congressional, state House and state Senate maps will go to Gov. Bill Lee for his signature. He has said he will sign the bills.

Cooper, 67, the son of the late Tennessee Gov. Prentice Cooper and brother of Nashville Mayor John Cooper, served the 4th Congressional District from 1983 to 1995 when he lost a U.S. Senate race to Fred Thompson. He later ran for the 5th District, which he has represented since 2003.

Cooper was a member of the Blue Dogs, a group of centrist members of Congress considered to be fiscally conservative. He was viewed, though, as increasingly liberal in recent years.

He said in his statement he plans to focus on constituent service during the final months of his term, giving out his personal cell phone number, 615-714-1710, to make himself accessible.

Cooper touted his efforts to bring Nashville $9.5 billion in federal funds in the last 20 months and noted that figure doesn’t count billions of dollars in federal aid, mainly for Medicaid expansion, the Legislature has rejected, or the Infrastructure Act funds no Tennessee Republican congressman supported.

“Most of my work in the House – the real work of Congress gets no publicity – has been on the Intelligence, Armed Services, Budget and Oversight Committees. I serve on more committees than anyone else while maintaining a nationally-recognized level of civility and bipartisanship, even in these divisive times,” Cooper said in his statement.

Kelly didn’t commit to staying in the race but said she is still looking at the redrawn district maps and “charting a path forward” for her campaign. 

“I joined the congressman in fighting back against the Tennessee General Assembly’s racist gerrymandering that will erase the voices of Black and brown voters in Nashville. But I know one thing is true: People-powered movements in this state have been building power for years and no map is going to slow it down,” Kelly said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie lauded Cooper for his hard work.

“His absence, which is caused by a short-sighted and power-hungry state Legislature that completely ignored the wishes of the state’s financial center and will diminish the voices of minorities in Middle Tennessee, will definitely hurt Davidson County,” said Dixie of Nashville.

House Minority Leader Karen Camper of Memphis called Cooper a “statesman” because of his skill, experience and respect he held as a political leader.

“He loves his state, his city and his community, and his decisions are always guided by what he believes will be best for them,” she said. 


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.