For the first time in a decade, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper is facing a primary challenge, this time with two Democrats hoping to unseat the longtime incumbent.
As Middle Tennesseans head to the polls when early voting begins on July 17, Democratic primary voters will see three names on the ballot for Tennessee’s 5th Congressional district, which includes all of Davidson County.
The 66-year-old Cooper, who has represented the district since 2003, will be joined by Keeda Haynes, 42, and Joshua Rawlings, 27, on the ballot.
In interviews with The Tennessean, the trio made their respective cases to voters. Here’s what they had to say about why voters should pick them and about issues facing Middle Tennessee and the nation (listed in alphabetical order):
Cooper: ‘Team effort to get good things to pass’
Reflecting on his last two years in office, Cooper touted his role in the House’s passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which he noted banned chokeholds, warrantless searches and qualified immunity.
He pointed to the CARES Act, the massive coronavirus funding package lawmakers passed earlier this year to provide assistance to citizens, businesses and governments across the country.
“A lot of folks don’t realize that legislation is a team sport,” he said in an interview. “It’s a team effort that gets good things to pass.”
In addition to legislation, Cooper boasted about his office’s interaction with voters, including him handing out his cell phone number to constituents and his involvement in a statewide voter registration drive.
Cooper noted his opposition to President Donald Trump, his support for President Barack Obama before his 2008 election and a years-long call to remove the bust of Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Tennessee Capitol. Further, he’s repeatedly called for Tennessee to expand Medicaid.
Cooper said the top issues the nation and state are facing include overcoming COVID-19, the economy, addressing systemic racism and health care.
“Our office has helped literally hundreds of people in the 5th district get (unemployment benefits) and the stimulus check,” Cooper said.
Faced with a challenge from Haynes and Rawlings, Cooper said he welcomed the competition. “I’m not a big shot, I’m a hired hand,” he said. “I’m on a two-year renewable contract.”
Overall, Cooper remained confident he was still in touch with the desires of voters in his district, which has changed significantly since he began representing it in 2003.
“Nashville has made a lot of progress,” he said.
“We were not the ‘It City’ back then and we still have many grievous flaws. But I’ve been so progressive I’ve been shy of talking about it,” said Cooper, pointing to his 2010 vote for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.
Haynes: ‘I’m used to taking on systems’
A first-time political candidate, Haynes said she is running because African-Americans like herself have felt “locked out, abandoned and silenced” by a government that was designed to represent everyone’s interests.
Haynes said there are a number of issues, including criminal justice reform, access to quality health care and affordable housing, that Cooper is not addressing.
She is seeking to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which she said disproportionately affect members of minority communities, including herself.
Haynes served nearly four years in federal prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit.
Her arrest came when she was enrolled at Tennessee State University and she accepted a FedEx package for her boyfriend. To her surprise, the package contained a significant amount of marijuana and she was arrested. Although she went to trial and was partially acquitted, Haynes was sentenced to prison due to the quantity of marijuana. She served nearly four years, appealing her case to the state Supreme Court, which later led to her sentence being reduced by a lower court.
After getting out of prison, Haynes graduated from law school and became a public defender. Given the years-long uphill battle, Haynes is not daunted by her challenge of a longtime incumbent.
“I am used to taking on systems,” she said. “It prepared me to be able to fight against all odds.”
She said her bid has been fueled by a desire to amplify the voices of the community.
While running for office, Haynes has netted endorsements from state Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, Bernie Sanders-linked Our Revolution, the Sunrise Movement and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has some affiliation with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Attorney Abby Rubenfeld, who served as co-counsel in the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, also is backing Haynes.
If elected, Haynes said she would advocate for Medicare for all and vowed to stay connected with constituents’ needs.
“(Jim Cooper) may be a very well-respected politician but he is not the voice that we need in Washington right now in this moment in history to move our community and to move our country forward,” she said.
Rawlings: ‘Get big money out of politics’
A former Republican who unsuccessfully ran for legislature in 2014, Rawlings called Cooper one of the “least-effective” members of Congress, pointing to legislation the congressman has sponsored.
A small businessman who owns a software company, Rawlings pointed to 2019 House hearings with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as evidence of the need to change the makeup of Congress.
“We run the risk of essentially being embarrassed by the other up-and-coming super powers if we don’t get a handle on the most important resource of the 21st Century, which is technology,” he said. “I think I’d bring that knowledge to the U.S. House.”
Discussing the top issues, Rawlings stressed the need to “get big money out of politics,” universal health care with a free public option, the environment and improving the nation’s education system.
Since his first bid for office, Rawlings challenged his Republican colleagues to welcome members of the LGBTQ community after the Supreme Court’s landmark same-sex marriage ruling.
He has since switched parties, saying, “Political parties are kind of mobs in their own right.”
Asked why he’s running for the Democratic nomination, Rawlings criticized the president, who he said is missing class and unifying qualities.
“It makes more sense to convince a Democrat of efficiency than it does a Republican to empathy,” he said, arguing it’s possible to reduce the size of the federal government while expanding services.
While campaigning, Rawlings said voters have been especially interested in health care. In recent months, his campaign has been handing out masks at protests and even tried to provide resources to Tennesseans while connecting them with experts on unemployment and loans from the federal government.
“Our campaign is not just about sloganeering,” he said. “It’s about taking action because I believe the number one job of a congressperson is to be the lead organizer for their district.”
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Reach Joel Ebert at email@example.com or 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29.
Published 8:00 AM EDT Jul 12, 2020