Congressman Cooper bids farewell after three decades in D.C.

Longtime U.S. Rep known for moderation amid partisanship

By: - January 5, 2023 6:01 am
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper reflects on his 32 years in Congress at Nashville coffee shop, Fido, on Dec. 15, 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper reflects on his 32 years in Congress at Nashville coffee shop, Fido, on Dec. 15, 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

For 32 years, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper sought to bring “Tennessee common sense” to Congress. But in the end, he saw an insurrection spurred by a president and the undoing of his congressional district by the Republican-controlled state Legislature.

The son of Tennessee Gov. Prentice Cooper and grandson of state House Speaker William Prentice Cooper, he is stepping away from Congress this week after two tours in the U.S. House of Representatives, ending a career in which he was called “the conscience of the House, a lonely voice for civility in this ugly era.”

Cooper, 68, cites former Gov. Lamar Alexander, the late Sen. Howard Baker, former Gov. Phil Bredesen and the late former Gov. Ned McWherter as key leaders in Tennessee.

“That’s the essence of Tennessee politics, and we have strayed so far from that that we’re in danger of ending up in the ditch,” Cooper says.

In 2021, Cooper urged Tennessee lawmakers not to split Davidson County into three districts as they went about the federally-required redistricting. Republicans ignored his request and ultimately drew the 5th Congressional District, as well as the 6th and 7th districts, into a mish-mash of Davidson, suburban and rural counties, giving Republicans a roughly 60% to 40% advantage at the polls.

The result, Cooper says, is that Columbia is now the capital of the 5th Congressional District, and Nashville will be represented by the members of Congress in the Maury County seat, Clarksville and Cookeville for the next decade unless Democrats “get their act together,” he says.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper waits to speak to the Tennessee General Assembly's Ad Hoc Committee on Redistricting in October. (Photo: John Partipilo)
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper waiting to speak to the Tennessee General Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on Redistricting in October 2021. Photo: John Partipilo)

An Oak Hill resident who grew up in Shelbyville while mixing in an Episcopal prep school experience in Massachusetts, Cooper used his experiences to represent both rural and urban constituents.

In contrast, he says Davidson County’s congressmen, Republican Reps. Mark Green, John Rose and Andy Ogles are quickly showing they won’t vote in line with the majority of Metro Nashville residents. None live in Davidson and only Green has said he would open a congressional office in Nashville.

“The district was designed to be out of touch with Nashville because it’s heavily weighted to outweigh anything Nashville believes in. So, this is the political destruction of Nashville that I’ve been talking about and writing about for years. This is an intentional plan by state legislative Republicans, and it’s even out of step with the national Republican Party,” Cooper says during a recent interview at Fido’s coffee shop in Nashville’s Hillsboro Village.

Cooper says the national Republican Party was fond of him, choosing several times not to challenge him at re-election time because of his moderate outlook.

But even though he would have been pitted against the right-wing firebrand Ogles if he had stayed in the race, Cooper contends he could not have won, simply because the numbers are overwhelmingly Republican. The old 5th included Cheatham and Dickson counties, but the new version takes in part of Davidson, Wilson, Williamson, Maury, Marshall and Lewis counties.

If his old home county of Bedford had been included in the 5th, he would have run again, he says.

Lawmakers “got wind of that,” though, Cooper says, and made sure it was not included in the new 5th. The legislature also put west Wilson County in the district, making it even more partisan Republican, an area where he knew he couldn’t gain support. State Sen. Heidi Campbell ran in his stead but couldn’t get enough support in rural and suburban counties to win.

One of Cooper’s longtime colleagues, former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, characterizes the redistricting as “criminal.”

“It was unfortunate for the state that there was such a brutal gerrymandering that really a star in the congressional delegation and, really, in Congress was forced out, and I think Nashville will better understand that as time goes on,” Gordon says.

The Murfreesboro Democrat characterizes Cooper as a “low-key star,” a congressman who was “very bright” and one of the most respected members of Congress on both sides of the aisle because of the way he dug into issues.

When it became apparent the Space Force was critical to national security, Cooper looked at it in a “serious way,” pushing the program to reality. Cooper also was famous for his intern program, one in which the members — known as “Jimterns” — were given reading assignments.

“He will also be known … as a pay-as-you-go guy, and he was an early proponent of not having deficit spending,” Gordon says.

Tennessee turns right

Among Cooper’s last votes as he prepared to step away from the office, he supported a measure to legalize same-sex marriages and maintain legality for interracial marriages. He and Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis were the only Tennessee lawmakers to back it. 

Cooper points out same-sex marriages and relationships were controversial decades ago but no longer, and he encourages Tennessee to “join the mainstream.” Otherwise, industry recruitment will prove difficult as companies seek a “diverse and inclusive” workforce, he says.

“I hate to see my colleagues drag their heels in joining the future,” he says.

Cooper is concerned that lack of tolerance could set back the state economically, even with major companies such as Ford Motor Co. deciding to locate an electric truck manufacturing plant and battery facility in rural West Tennessee.

Tennessee voters overwhelmingly backed former President Donald Trump in the 2015 and 2019 elections and picked three hard-core conservative congressmen in 2022 who picked up at least 60% of the vote even though they barely campaigned.

Jim Cooper, photographed on Dec. 15, 2022, by John Partipilo.
Jim Cooper, photographed on Dec. 15, 2022, by John Partipilo.

Cooper believes Tennessee strayed from its moderate roots, in part, because of “destabilizing social media.” For instance, he points out, the 2016 Mueller Report found that one of the most popular Tennessee websites was tn_gop, which was really a Russian computer program that seduced thousands of Tennesseans by repeating racist memes.

“That was sufficiently popular to swing any election in Tennessee. But that shows how vulnerable we were because we didn’t expect an attack from Russia. We didn’t see any bullets getting fired, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Now it’s in your laptop or your phone,” he says.

Cooper is well-versed in cyber attacks. In his second congressional stint from 2003 to 2022, he helped form the Space Force as chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. In his first stint from 1983 to 1995, he focused on health-care policy and fought for expanded coverage. 

A self-admitted “nerd,” Cooper served on more committees than any member of Congress and was among the longest-serving members from Tennessee. He obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina before becoming a prestigious Rhodes Scholar, then earning a law degree at Harvard. He worked at a Nashville law firm for a short period before running for Congress in 1982. He was only 28 when first elected.

A member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of centrist Democrats focused on fiscal responsibility and a strong military, Cooper sounded the bell about America’s shaky financial future, though he believes it can be salvaged. He also voted against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi more than once — mainly because it was politically expedient for both of them.

“Blue Dogs are one of the bravest groups in Congress because we’re one of the few groups willing to buck our party’s leadership,” Cooper says. “Because guess what, neither party is right all the time. That’s not a news flash. Everybody knows it, but so few people are willing to act on their beliefs. My job was not to be a Democrat, my job was to represent the people of Tennessee.”

Shift in Volunteer State

On the political front, Tennessee was always considered a “border state,” with moderates such as Baker, Alexander, Sens. Bob Corker and Bill Frist and Gov. Winfield Dunn leading the way. Cooper puts Bredesen and McWherter in that group as well.

Baker, who was immensely popular, fell out of favor because he sided with Democratic President Jimmy Carter on allowing Panama to take control of the Panama Canal, according to Cooper. 

That would be akin to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreeing with former President Barack Obama on passage of the Affordable Care Act in exchange for not seeking re-election, Cooper says.

Yet Baker, who was known for saying “the other guy might be right,” became chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan and saved the Reagan presidency, Cooper says.

Tennessee’s political leaders today don’t fit that mold, falling in line with Trump’s anti-government movement.

Current U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty are two of the most conservative members of the upper chamber and were on the verge of voting against the seating of President Joe Biden until the Jan. 6 Capitol siege started. 

Cooper says they deserve credit for winning elections, but he questions whether Tennessee put up competitive candidates. He contends Democrats have to regain a winning edge.

“We have to show respect for all voters in our state, rural or urban. We have to show respect for all viewpoints,” he says.

For instance, Democrats could be missing the mark on the Second Amendment, and Nashville Democrats, in particular, have to learn the importance of rural Tennessee and the agricultural contributions it makes to the state. 

A national argument

Yet he points out the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade, which allowed states such as Tennessee to ban abortion, helped create a larger Democratic majority in the Senate.

Jim Cooper, photographed in Nashville on December 15, 2022, by John Partipilo.
Jim Cooper, photographed in Nashville on December 15, 2022, by John Partipilo.

“In a crowded modern world that the frontiersmen didn’t have to worry about, people want a right to privacy, which includes not only the right to marry who you love, it includes the right to plan your own family. It includes the right to have interracial marriage and all those things are now under threat from the Supreme Court,” he says.

The high court strayed in the past in cases such as the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which prohibited people of African ancestry from being granted freedom simply because they lived in states where slavery was prohibited, a ruling Cooper feels was ridiculous.

He contends any time the court “strays too far from common sense,” trouble is in the offing.

“The election results were a repudiation of the court and to some extent Trump extremism,” he says.

But while many of former President Trump’s handpicked candidates lost, Cooper considers it a “tragedy” that Democrats couldn’t win by bigger margins.

For instance, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King preached, narrowly beat former football star Herschel Walker.

How it started

Cooper continues to hold admiration for the Alexanders and the Bakers, even though he handily defeated the late senator’s daughter, Cissy, in his first congressional race for the old 4th District. He says it was drawn for either the late state Rep. Tommy Burnett or Cissy Baker when Democrats and Republicans had “mystery” candidates for the race.

He notes that Cissy Baker hired a Washington firm to run her campaign but made poor strategic decisions. The primary color she chose for signs and stickers was yellow, and she didn’t want to be associated with the Baker name.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, photographed by Associated Press photographer Mark Humphrey shortly after being elected to Congress in 1982 to represent Tennessee's 4th District.
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, photographed by Associated Press photographer Mark Humphrey shortly after being elected to Congress in 1982 to represent Tennessee’s 4th District.

Thus, she handed out yellow bumper stickers that said “Cissy,” failing to realize that most people in rural East and Middle Tennessee weren’t going to put a bumper sticker like that on a pickup truck.

“That shows people are out of touch with rural Tennessee,” he says.

The late Fred Thompson, on the other hand, who defeated Cooper in the 1993 U.S. Senate race, rented a pickup and drove across the state campaigning as a folksy candidate for Congress.

“He didn’t even believe in his own campaign enough to (own one). But that worked, that symbolism and also the fact that he’d been in tons of movies playing admirals and senators and presidents. Give Fred credit, he was a genuinely authentic person. He’s from Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, a self-made man, larger than life, dated movie stars. Who’s against that? That’s pretty cool,” Cooper says.

Two congressional careers

During his initial congressional stint, Cooper put together a plan to spread health-care coverage nationwide, minus an employer mandate.

His father had suffered from cancer much of his adult life and died when the younger Cooper was 14. Faced with that harsh reality, he learned how the hospital industry worked and developed an appreciation for health care.

Cooper also understood that Tennessee was a health-care capital, with companies such as the Hospital Corporation of America sprouting in Nashville.

He remains disappointed with Tennessee’s refusal to accept Medicaid expansion, which would enable some 300,000 uninsured and underinsured people to have health-care coverage, calling it a “national tragedy because it is a self-inflicted wound.”

Going back 30 years, though, he also regrets Hillary Clinton’s refusal to accept his bipartisan health-care bill that would have put universal coverage into place 20 years before Obamacare took effect.

“That was one of the greatest lost opportunities in American history,” he says. 

Cooper says he tried to give his legislation to Hillary Clinton but she refused to take it because her health advisor wanted to start with a more liberal bill and be “dragged kicking and screaming to the middle.”

Congress also failed to pass the Wyden-Bennett health care plan and, instead, pushed Obamacare to passage, leading to multiple lawsuits.

Cooper argues that each party too often “invites trouble,” inserting “poison pills” into legislation that the other side of the aisle will dislike. 

When Cooper returned to Congress in the early 2000s after a turn teaching at Vanderbilt University and working as an investment banker, Pelosi refused to reappoint him to the health committee but placed him on the intelligence committee, instead. 

In 1980, two years before his first term, Cooper says “we nearly lost Tennessee” when a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile blew up in an Arkansas silo after a repairman dropped a wrench into it. The near-disaster, which could have sent a massive nuclear plume into West Tennessee, was kept secret for years.

Thus, his job was largely secret for 20 years, and he became an expert on America’s nuclear weapons, military satellites and ballistic missiles, matters that require perfect execution.

Otherwise, the nation’s security and safety is at risk.

Cooper tells of one incident in 1980, two years before his first term, when “we nearly lost Tennessee” because a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile blew up in an Arkansas silo when a repairman dropped a wrench. The near-disaster, which could have sent a massive nuclear plume into West Tennessee, was kept secret for years.

The Space Force was needed, in part, because the Air Force was doing a poor job with military satellites, according to Cooper. He calls it the biggest change in the military since 1947, maybe 1926.

“The top Air Force official said for years all the Air Force did was build a glass house. Their job wasn’t to build a glass house, and guess what, once that was acknowledged, what did they do to strengthen the glass house? Nothing,” he says.

Entrusted with some of the nation’s most important military secrets, Cooper says modern technology, space and cyberspace eliminate the protection oceans and friendly neighbors provided America for centuries.

The insurrection

Like most members of Congress, Cooper was in his office on Jan. 6, 2020 when a throng of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to stop the certification of Biden’s election. It had never come close to happening in more than three decades, and suddenly protection disappeared as rioters gunned for lawmakers such as Speaker Pelosi and any senators they could find.

“This is stated intent to murder, and that is completely wrong. This hadn’t happened in America since the British burned the Capitol in the War of 1812. That was a war, and this was an insurrection by our own people? And see, these are not bad people.”

Despite their anger and bad intent, Cooper says they were simply misled at the White House rally by Trump and his “worst allies.”

“Anybody can be fooled, but let’s not let them stay fooled,” he says, adding it is important to explain to the public what happened.

This is stated intent to murder, and that is completely wrong. This hadn’t happened in America since the British burned the Capitol in the War of 1812.

– U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper on the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol

A two-year-long investigation that laid much of the blame at the feet of Trump and called for criminal charges against the next president is at an end. The U.S. House is narrowly controlled by Republicans, who have thus far failed to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker, while right-wing members stall.

Cooper, however, says his political career is done. You can “put a fork” in him. He’s ready to teach again, finish a book and likely do some banking.

“I’ve won 33 out of 34 elections,” he says. “That’s a pretty good win-loss record. And that’s because of the kindness of Tennessee voters. What they’ve given me is this: They’ve given me the benefit of the doubt, which is the nicest present anybody can ever be given.”

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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.