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Photo: Odessa Kelly Campaign
Odessa is the newest progressive candidate to emerge a challenger to the Democratic establishment. Photo: Odessa Kelly Campaign

Tennessee’s Odessa Kelly is the first progressive challenger of the 2022 election cycle

Kelly is running to unseat establishment Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, and the dynasty his family has held over Nashville.

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The first major left-wing primary challenge to House Democrat in the 2022 cycle is here, and her name is Odessa Kelly. 

Supported by the same group that helped propel Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush to Congress last year, Kelly announced that she will be challenging longtime Representative Jim Cooper in Tennessee. 

“People are tired of being told what they can’t do or what is not possible. People want to be inspired,” Kelly said. 

If elected, she would become the first openly gay Black woman in Congress. 

The Nashville native and active community organizer will be taking on a local political dynasty. 

Cooper’s brother, John, is the mayor of Nashville inside the same district, but Kelly is fearless in her endeavor.

 “I’m not afraid of taking it on because it’s not about taking on the Coopers; it’s about addressing the needs of the everyday, hard-working people,” Kelly said. 

Kelly was recruited by Justice Democrats, the group that helped three insurgent candidates defeat Democratic incumbents over the last few years. 

“Our grassroots movement has shocked the nation in two cycles and we are prepared to do it again,” Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, said in a statement. “It’s time to usher in a new generation of progressive leadership into the Democratic Party.” 

Kelly is confident that her progressive platform will be received in Nashville. The city’s cost of living has been rapidly increasing, and Kelly described her home community as a “case for gentrification in the city and across the country.” 

This gentrification has affected her personally. 

She said that she was one of two Black families that was “left on the street” and she has been living on since 2009. She once feared that she’d never be able to be a homeowner in her own city. 

In her view, Cooper has done little to alleviate these issues. But Kelly’s campaign draws on her experience as a community organizer to counter Cooper’s establishment mentality. 

Kelly is the co-founder of the nonprofit Stand Up Nashville, which addresses racial and economic inequality, through strategic action around public investment and city planning to create thriving neighborhoods and shared property. 

Kelly describes her campaign as “bold.” 

“[It’s] about Nashville. It's about telling a story about Nashville that most people don’t get to hear. It’s about telling a story about everyday, hardworking people who have something to say.” 

Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, praised Kelly, saying that she is the “exact kind of person” that we need to see more of in the Democratic Party as well as in Congress. 

On Friday, April 2, about two dozen people gathered outside Cooper’s office in downtown Nashville, urging him to endorse various proposals regarding climate change, policing and health care. 

Audrey Tesi of Black Lives Matter Nashville doesn’t think that Cooper has done enough. 

“I’ve seen him provide some statements, but those are empty statements. It’s not enough to say, ‘I hear and see you and I empathize with you.’ That does not provide materially effective change for the Black community,” Tesi said. 

Cooper has long been known as a moderate Democrat, who made a name for himself in the 90s fighting against Bill and Hilary Clinton’s plans for universal health care. But throughout Trump’s presidency and a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, Cooper appeared to have softened on several fronts. 

He signed on as a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, even though he previously expressed reluctance towards supporting it. 

“I’ve never heard a representative badmouth a resolution or bill that they were co-sponsoring while they were in the midst of co-sponsoring it,” says Rick Herron of the pro-Green New Deal Sunrise Movement.

In an interview with the Scene late last year, Cooper recognized the influence of progressives but insisted that Democrats should redirect their frustration and passion towards the Republicans, as they are the “real opposition.” 

“It's very easy for us to spend all our time and effort focusing on party purity instead of on winning elections. Tennessee Democrats need much more practice on winning elections,” Cooper said. 

If Kelly is elected, her two main priorities would be Medicare for All and Green New Deal legislation. 

In a recent interview with BuzzFeed News, Kelly said that she’s willing and able to get things done at a much faster pace.

“It shouldn’t take 40 years to get something good. Representative Cooper has had decades in Congress, and we don’t know what he’s done. When you look at what I’ve done for Nashville, I’ve got receipts,” she said. 

As she reflected on other Justice Democrats candidates, such as Jamaal Bowman and AOC, she said that her biggest takeaway is that “the validation of what we feel as everyday regular people is correct.” 

Kelly also appreciates that Justice Democrats candidates are often just like her, from community organizing backgrounds with long histories of working in their districts. 

“That’s where we’ve been missing the mark, especially on the congressional level,” Kelly said. 

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