Primary School 4/5
The first Justice Democrat challenger has arrived
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The first Justice Democrat of the 2022 election cycle has thrown her hat into the ring. Meet Odessa Kelly, a Nashville organizer who just launched her campaign to represent Tennessee’s 5th congressional district, currently held by Jim Cooper. We’re of two minds about this. First, let’s make the case for optimism.
There is no perfect candidate, but Odessa Kelly comes close. A county employee and SEIU member, Kelly first rose to prominence in 2017, as the Metro Council (Nashville/Davidson County’s consolidated city-county government) was mulling allowing Major League Soccer to build a new stadium. She helped found Stand Up Nashville, a coalition of activist organizations and unions who wanted that stadium to come paired with commitments to the community. After a bitter fight, they won. For her efforts, one local magazine recognized her as the “Best Activist” in the city. She continued her work with Stand Up Nashville throughout the next couple years, winning major victories and accolades in the process. In 2020, she was named the group’s executive director, and has continued to fight for the city. For rent control, against Amazon, all the right fights to be picking right now. She is an obvious fit for this district—in fact, she was so obvious, Justice Democrats were looking for her to run in 2020, but she wasn’t ready to. Now that she is, she’s entering with multiple Council endorsements, and an immediate fundraising windfall.
“Big government doesn’t work. Great Society doesn’t work. New Deal doesn’t even work. We’ve got to have a new way for government to work cost-effectively.”
Jim Cooper is exactly the sort of relic of the past you would not expect to still be hanging around. He’s the last old-school Southern Blue Dog in Congress: the son of an ardent segregationist former governor, Jim was educated at all the best schools and settling down with a law practice in Nashville when, in 1982, the state’s conservative Democratic legislature drew a new congressional district, an ugly, rural strip of gerrymandering that placed its eventual occupant in three of the state’s media markets. Despite living nowhere near it, Cooper ran for the district and won. Thus began a 12-year stint in Congress, during which he accrued a conservative record, and is best known for helping kill Hillary and Bill Clinton’s 1994 healthcare reform proposal. Here’s a good account of his role in leading the conservaDem charge against what he called “the mother of all entitlements”. Clinton staffer Mike Lux has said that, from his perspective inside the White House, Cooper was the single Democrat who did more than any other to kill the reform.
After torpedoing an attempt at expanding healthcare coverage, Cooper lost a Senate race disastrously in 1994 and went back to law for a while. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that long until, in 2002, another House district—Nashville’s TN-05—opened up. This time, he even lived in it! He had money and name recognition, while labor split between his two main opponents. Thus, Jim Cooper waltzed back into Congress. You may think that going from representing a conservative rural district that voted for Reagan by wide margins to representing a more liberal, urban, and diverse district might change his politics. It seems like it did a little. The Cooper of the 80s would be the most conservative Democratic member of Congress, whereas the Cooper of today is merely in the top 10 or so. We won’t bore you with everything he’s done wrong in Congress since then - he’s a Blue Dog, and a permanent occupant of the roll call lists you check on every time you go “wait, 8 Democrats voted for that???”. The fact that Nancy Pelosi managed to get him to vote for the ACA is a testament to her once-in-a-generation vote-whipping talent.
Cooper’s only in his late 60s, but he’s already a relic of a past that no longer has much relevance to the present day, and an old white guy in a rapidly diversifying city famous for its youth. While Nashville was, for a while, behind the curve in terms of electing progressives, that has changed recently, and in 2020, Cooper only won 57-41 against Keeda Haynes, a progressive public defender who raised $150,000 and relied on local organizations to carry her, since national ones weren’t biting. Kelly is poised to have all the support Haynes missed out on, and it’s not like Cooper was caught sleeping last time - he was prepared for Haynes, it was just that he contains all the problems of Eliot Engel and Henry Cuellar in one convenient package. Kelly is his perfect foil. We’re willing to make the bold prediction that Kelly may even be more likely to win this district than he is.
Except there may not be a district to win. Welcome to the case for pessimism: it’s trivially easy to gerrymander Nashville. You can easily draw a map in which TN-09 (Memphis) is the only district in the state where Trump even got under 60% of the vote in in 2020, all while every incumbent gets a district that preserves most of their old district and won’t cause primary worries*. Republicans absolutely have the authority to do that. There is no state law stopping them, and there is no federal protection for this district because a solid majority of the population is white and non-Hispanic.
So why didn’t Republicans do this in 2011, then? Unclear. We know they were considering it, but they backed out at the last moment. Republicans, at the time, had three new incumbents, all of whom had flipped districts that were partially in the Nashville metro. Maybe they didn’t want to piss off lawmakers who were still worried about primaries, or they weren’t convinced that rural Tennessee was going to stay as red as it went in 2010, and chickened out. But rural Tennessee has only gotten redder, and their incumbents are more secure now. There is no reason not to go for it, and they almost certainly will if they’re allowed to. The very existence of a Nashville congressional district is inextricably tied to the fate of HR-1, which bans gerrymandering at the federal level, and creates nonpartisan commissions to draw the maps instead. We wish we could say that we’re certain HR-1 is going to pass, but it will be a fight. Passing it requires nuking the filibuster, and even the bill itself may not have Joe Manchin fully on board. The success of HR-1, and by extension Odessa Kelly’s campaign, is yet to be determined.
*we know this because we’ve drawn these districts ourselves using Dave’s Redistricting Application, a free and accessible online tool. On principle, we won’t be publishing any hypothetical Republican gerrymanders, just for the one-in-a-million chance it gives someone an idea, but you can find your own online if you want.
New Mexico Democrats disappointed us—no, they enraged us. It takes a special kind of cynical disregard for the Democratic base to even think of replacing Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary in American history and the biggest victory for the left in Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominations, with a moderate white Anglo in a majority-minority, safely Democratic seat. But that is exactly what the New Mexico Democratic Party’s nominating convention did, narrowly choosing state Rep. Melanie Stansbury over state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez in a runoff; Sedillo Lopez came in a clear first place in the first round of convention voting, with Stansbury in a distant second. Stansbury will almost certainly win the June special election to fill Haaland’s seat; it’s up to the left to make sure she loses the 2022 primary, because party insiders gifted her a seat she likely wouldn’t have won had New Mexico law required primaries for special elections rather than opaque, undemocratic conventions. This is unacceptable.
Nina Turner is looking like more and more of a frontrunner. On Wednesday, she got the endorsement of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson—a through-and-through creature of the political machine in Cleveland, a moderate with every ideological reason to shy away from an anti-establishment progressive outsider like Turner. We doubt Turner’s high-profile moderate endorsements (last week, it was Cleveland City Councilman Blaine Griffin) represent a sincere change of heart from the Cleveland establishment; to us, it seems more like they see her as too strong of a frontrunner to put up a fight, particularly with an establishment standard-bearer as flawed as Shontel Brown, a county councilor and the controversialchair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.
That was all prologue to the biggest news this week: the fundraising totals announced by the Turner and Brown campaigns for the first quarter of 2021.
You may remember Shontel Brown’s incredibly weak Q4 2020 haul; she raised just $40,000. (Turner, for comparison, raised a whopping $646,000.) In good news for Brown, she picked up the pace: the Brown campaign announced they had brought in $640,000 in the first three months of 2021. That’s less than Turner’s haul in the fourth quarter of 2020—which was a very abbreviated fundraising period, seeing as both Turner and Brown filed to run with just three weeks left in the year—but Turner, a national star, was always going to outraise her competition, and $640,000 is still a very strong quarterly fundraising total. The question was by how much—and that’s where we get to the bad news for Shontel Brown. Nina Turner raised $1.55 million in the first three months of 2021. One and a half million dollars! For a House primary! And it was a massive base of grassroots, small-dollar donors: the Turner campaign reported that their average donation was just $28. Impressively for a national figure such as Turner, Ohio was the state accounting for the second-largest share of donations, behind only California; this means that Ohioans gave more than residents of much larger states like Texas and New York. According to the Turner campaign, those donors represented every ZIP code in the 11th congressional district, too. Turner’s campaign has had a higher burn rate, to be sure, but that’s something you can afford when you’re raising a half-million dollars per month. Turner has over $1 million left to spend, while Brown has over $500,000 left. We’re certain that a much higher share of Turner’s donors are small-dollar donors—meaning they can keep giving again and again without running up against the legal limit, providing a more sustainable financial base than a big-dollar strategy which requires a campaign to constantly find new rich donors.
Aurora, IL Mayor
Aurora, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, is the second largest city in the state, with a population of 198,000. That’s larger than, just to name a few cities, Little Rock, Tallahassee, Akron, and Knoxville. It also votes on its mayor tomorrow, and incumbent Mayor Richard Irvin is not guaranteed re-election. While no one scandal has truly tarred him, Irvin has earned his share of ugly headlines. Irvin has been extremely friendly to businesses and developers, something both of his challengers, John Laesch and Alderman Judd Lofchie have hit him on. Laesch, who’s running on a platform of ending blank check tax giveaways and investing in green jobs, has a history in progressive politics - he very nearly won a spot in Congress in 2008, but lost the primary by less than 1% to Bill Foster, and last year he managed the campaign of Foster challenger Rachel Ventura, in addition to other local work he’s been doing. He’s the choice of local progressive orgs in this race, including a healthy number of local elected officials and activists. Lofchie lands to the right of Irvin politically, stressing the need for debt control and spending restraint. He appears to have less support than either Irvin or Laesch.
St. Louis Mayor
St. Louis goes to the polls tomorrow to select one of two candidates to be their new mayor, both of whom stand to usher in a new era for the city. While Alderwoman Cara Spencer is certainly a break from the moderate, business- and police-friendly records of past mayors, it’s been apparent for a while now that City Treasurer Tishaura Jones is willing to go further. We’ll find out soon enough which the city will choose, but we do have another poll of the race to tide us over until vote counting begins. A Show Me Victory poll of 650 St. Louisans, paid for by Jones backers, finds Jones in the lead 47% - 41%. Like the previous poll of the race, it also finds that Jones is getting extremely high levels of support from Black voters, while whites are more split, and that Republican are universally behind Spencer. The relatively conservative St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board endorsed Spencer today as well.
In a major signal that no other establishment progressive choices will be entering the race for Seattle mayor, Seattle City Council President Loretta González has received the endorsement of Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
Andrew Cuomo has yet another scandal. This time, it’s not sexual misconduct—a change of pace! No, it’s just plain old corruption. During the writing and promotion of Andrew Cuomo’s poorly-aged COVID leadership book, the governor and top aides used state resources for the book project, including the labor of on-the-clock state employees and the utilization of the governor’s mansion as a ghoulish authors’ retreat. This information comes courtesy of the New York Times, which helpfully situates the possibly illegal use of state resources in a chronological context: as the book was being hammered out, top Cuomo aides were ordering the state’s health department to revise nursing home deaths downwards in order to conceal the true death toll of the governor’s policy of discharging COVID-positive patients into nursing homes. In response, the governor has completely ducked the press and signed a bunch of progressive policies he’s long stood in the way of, in the hopes of getting people to forget he’s a horrible crook. New York hastily moved to legalize marijuana, and the bill finally made it into law this week; so did restrictions on the use of solitary confinement in state prisons, which had been languishing on his desk for weeks. Just today, Cuomo suddenly walked back his long-standing opposition to making the rich pay a single penny more in taxes, buckling to Democratic state legislators and tentatively agreeing to a tax plan which is set to bring in an additional $4.3 billion per year in taxes via tax hikes on corporate franchise income and individual income over $1 million. Andrew Cuomo’s impeachment remains an urgent moral imperative; however, it’s nice to see him fold on every centrist policy priority he holds dear in a naked attempt at extending his time in office.
Speaking of marijuana…
Marijuana legalization sailed through the New York state legislature, but not without opposition from some Democratic legislators in deep-blue constituencies. The three most galling no votes were all in the Assembly: Sandy Galef of Westchester County, Brian Barnwell of Queens, and Jenifer Rajkumar of Queens. All represent very, very Democratic districts: Galef represents the diverse Hudson River city of Peekskill and affluent liberal suburbs such as Ossining; Barnwell represents a swath of young, diverse, left-leaning neighborhoods including Astoria and Sunnyside; Rajkumar represents similarly left-leaning (and even more diverse) neighborhoods such as Woodhaven and Ridgewood. Rajkumar may be the worst of them all: she ran as a primary challenger in 2020, and while it was clear that she would be a thorough disappointment, she at least seemed less atrocious than outright conservative Democratic incumbent Mike Miller. Guess not. We’d like to note that Tiffany Cabán easily won both Rajkumar’s and Barnwell’s districts in her 2019 District Attorney primary, and a major plank of her campaign platform was decriminalizing all drugs.
In the state Senate, there were also unacceptable Democratic no votes, namely from Joe Addabbo of Queens and Anna Kaplan of Long Island, but neither represents a district as lopsidedly Democratic as Galef, Barnwell, or Rajkumar does. (Their districts are merely reliably Democratic, rather than overwhelmingly.)
NYC Endorsement Tracker:
Mayor: Candidate Maya Wiley for Dianne Morales (second choice, see item), Rep. Tom Suozzi for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams (and, apparently, something called the Italian-American PAC, Nick is very sorry about his people’s poor taste)
Maya Wiley named Dianne Morales as her second choice and encouraged her supporters to rank Morales second. In and of itself, this is just a ranked-choice footnote, but it speaks to something more significant: Scott Stringer’s campaign has really fallen behind. Not long ago, Stringer and Wiley were seen as the two candidates with a claim to the progressive lane, with Morales far behind. Now, despite Stringer’s long list of endorsements and eight-year head start, he’s languishing in the middle of most polls, with little momentum behind his campaign.
Manhattan Borough President
We’re really only giving this an item because Rangel’s endorsement of Levine is particularly noteworthy for several reasons. First, Rangel was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the undisputed king of Harlem politics for decades. Second, Rangel’s reign ended after two bruising primary victories over then-state Sen. Adriano Espaillat; the Rangel-Espaillat races were infamously bitter. Rangel retired in 2016 rather than face Espaillat again, and Espaillat won the primary for the 13th congressional district. Among Espaillat’s earliest backers in his very first congressional campaign? Mark Levine, then a Democratic District Leader (an unpaid-but-elected position within the local Democratic Party.) Levine stuck with Espaillat in 2014, too; Rangel has reason to hold a grudge.
Council District 36
Candidate Jason Walker has dropped out and endorsed Chi Ossé, citing the personal cost of running a campaign: campaigning is a full-time job, but it doesn’t pay. Walker’s exit is a sad reminder of one of the many ways our electoral system disadvantages candidates who don’t have preexisting wealth.
Walker and Ossé were previously competing for the left’s support in this open Bed-Stuy district; this should give Ossé, a queer 22-year-old Black Lives Matter organizer, a better shot at consolidating the left.