A major Tennessee union on Thursday endorsed progressive activist Odessa Kelly’s primary challenge against Rep. Jim Cooper (D) in Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District, giving a boost to a candidate facing long odds.
The union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 205, which has 4,000 members across Tennessee, represents many local government employees in the Nashville area.
Kelly, who was a Nashville parks department employee before founding the liberal group Stand Up Nashville, is a member of Local 205 from her time as a city worker.
The endorsement nonetheless marks a shift for Local 205, which endorsed Cooper in 2020 and contributed to his campaign.
“What really impressed me about her is that everyone’s treated the same when it comes to her,” said Alisa Utley, a 911 dispatcher active in Local 205. “If she can help you, she’ll help you any way that she can. That’s the kind of representation that we as citizens look for.”
Local 205’s endorsement brings with it the blessing of its much larger parent union, SEIU, which has more than 2 million members.
Asked if she had any grievances with Cooper, Local 205’s Utley cited only the length of his service in Congress.
“I don’t necessarily have complaints,” Utley said.“I just think it’s time for a change.”
Although Cooper is an institution in metropolitan Nashville politics ― he has represented the area in the House on two different occasions for a total of 30 years ― given Kelly’s membership in the union and the union’s desire for change, Local 205 did not see it as a hard choice.
“Local 205 members are excited to have the opportunity to support one of their own.”
Cooper last spoke with Local 205 members in November to discuss the COVID-19 relief package, but the union did not invite him separately for an endorsement interview ahead of the 2022 primary.
“Local 205 members are excited to have the opportunity to support one of their own,” Brad Rayson, Local 205 president, said in a statement.
Local 205 plans to “invest significant resources” in electing Kelly, including by mobilizing its membership to volunteer for her, according to Rayson.
Kelly, who announced her bid in April, is the first candidate that the left-wing group Justice Democrats recruited as a primary challenger this cycle. She is running as a more progressive alternative to Cooper, promising to support ambitious policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
Cooper stands out in the House Democratic Caucus for his history of fiscal conservatism. Among other things, during the Obama administration he voted against the 2009 economic stimulus package and supported a bipartisan “grand bargain” trading Social Security and Medicare benefit cuts for an increase in revenue.
Notably, Local 205 did not justify its endorsements based on either Kelly’s or Cooper’s policy stances. That’s a positive sign for Kelly, who will need more than just the progressive vote to win.
As a result of census-based redistricting, it is not yet clear what the boundaries of the new district will be and how those lines could affect the considerations of Democratic primary voters.
The primary is due to take place on Aug. 4, 2022.