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The Progressive Group That Helped Bring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez To Congress Is Launching Its First Primary Challenge Of 2022

Odessa Kelly, 39, is taking on an incumbent Democrat in Tennessee. She would be the first openly gay Black woman elected to Congress.

Posted on April 5, 2021, at 7:01 a.m. ET

Courtesy of Odessa Kelly for Congress

Odessa Kelly, a congressional candidate and community organizer from East Nashville, Tennessee.

WASHINGTON — The progressives who helped defeat three Democratic incumbents in the last three years and brought Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress have their first Democratic target for next year’s election, and a chosen candidate to take him down.

Justice Democrats is launching Odessa Kelly’s campaign against Rep. Jim Cooper, setting up a primary fight between a community organizer from East Nashville, Tennessee, and the moderate Blue Dog incumbent.

Kelly cofounded the group Stand Up Nashville, a nonprofit focused on “equitable, inclusive, and democratic” economic development in the city, while Cooper has represented Tennessee’s 5th District since 2003 and represented the 4th District from 1983 to 1995.

“It shouldn’t take 40 years to get something good done,” Kelly said during a recent interview with BuzzFeed News. “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.”

If elected, Kelly would also be the first openly gay Black woman to be elected to Congress, something she said she wasn’t even aware of until proofreading the press release announcing her candidacy. “That’s so dope,” she said with a laugh when asked about it. “I’m an openly gay person, a Black woman, a mother. Those are part of me.”

“As someone who has spent her life as a public servant and a community organizer, Odessa Kelly is exactly the kind of Democrat we need in Congress,” Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas said in a statement shared with BuzzFeed News. “Our grassroots movement has shocked the nation in two cycles and we are prepared to do it again. It’s time to usher in a new generation of progressive leadership into the Democratic Party.”

Kelly’s early campaign mirrors those that have been successful for Justice Democrats in recent years, after the group helped skyrocket Ocasio-Cortez to victory over former Rep. Jim Crowley in 2018. In 2020, the group had similar successes with Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush, who knocked off former Democratic Reps. Eliot Engel and Lacy Clay. Several other high profile challengers, including Kara Eastman in Nebraska, Alex Morse in Massachusetts, and Jessica Cisneros in Texas, came close but ultimately fell short.

“The biggest thing I’ve taken from other Justice Democrats candidates is the validation of what we feel as everyday regular people is correct,” Kelly said. She added that she appreciates that Justice Democrats candidates are often, 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’s campaign launch comes after a tumultuous year for Nashville. “We’ve been through it,” she said. “In this past year alone, we’ve had a tornado, a pandemic, a bombing, and a flood.”

Recovering from those disasters and addressing poverty in the district will take a concerted effort, she said, including focusing on Medicare for All, housing justice, and Green New Deal union jobs.

Kelly said that she specifies not just the Green New Deal (which she called “hip hop to Congress compared to a lot of the old songs we’ve been playing”), but Green New Deal union jobs for a reason. “The union has been a way for us to [have] a pathway out of poverty,” she said. “And it’s a way for us to do it again.”

Cooper is a member of the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition. In a press release Monday, Justice Democrats branded Cooper as “Republican-lite” and hit him for supporting the Balanced Budget Amendment as recently as 2019, which would cut funding for safety net programs, as well as 2012 legislation to raise the Social Security age and cut Medicare and Medicaid. He was, as the group noted, one of just 11 Democrats who voted against former President Barack Obama’s stimulus package in 2009.

In her campaign to unseat Cooper, Kelly says she plans to aggressively organize in the district and work to turn out voters who historically have not consistently shown up to the polls, a strategy that worked for Bush last year.

“I am of that community where you traditionally see a lot of people who don’t vote,” she said, adding that she’s excited to get outside and get to work. “I’ve been in the house a whole year. I cannot wait to knock doors. I can’t wait to do phone banks.”

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.