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Tennessee’s Odessa Kelly could be the first openly gay black congresswoman

Odessa Kelly in Washington, D.C.
Odessa Kelly in Washington, DC (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

Odessa Kelly, who may be the first openly gay black congresswoman, is running in Tennessee’s newly redesigned 7th District


It was the kind of summer afternoon everyone in DC knows: lazy in the sense that the air isn’t inclined to move, even under the humming fan of a neighborhood bar; sweat puddles on the back of your knees if you sit long enough.

But you wouldn’t know that by watching Odessa Kelly.

When Kelly recently walked into As You Are, a queer bar in Southeast DC, she cut a cool, confident, and very tall figure, wearing a white polka dot blazer over a white T-shirt, blue skinny jeans and white moccasins. And crowning her long locs was a huge pair of black headphones, from which she played Kendrick Lamar and Pusha T.

Since declaring her candidacy for Tennessee’s 7th congressional district, the former college basketball player, civil servant, activist and mother of two has given a lot of thought to how best to present herself.

“As an openly gay black woman, 6 feet tall, you know, male leaning, I want to make sure I present myself well,” Kelly, 40, said.

If elected in November, Kelly would make history on several fronts: she would be the first black woman to represent Tennessee and the first openly gay black woman to be elected to Congress. (That could be the case for three other candidates this year: Aisha Mills and Queen Johnson in New York and Kimberly Walker in Florida, according to LGBTQ political advocacy group Victory Fund.)

She is running for Congress, despite anti-Asian attacks on her

It’s the kind of story Kelly says her hometown of Nashville is ready to write. But to get there, Kelly must not only defeat an entrenched Republican incumbent, but must also win a redesigned district that voting rights advocates have called one of the most gerrymandered in the nation.

It is a battle emblematic of the political tensions of the South: liberal urban areas that are rapidly growing, diversifying and gaining political influence against a powerful conservative infrastructure that has managed to maintain its power, in part, by redrawing electoral maps and increasing electoral restrictions. .

If Kelly is sweating, she’s not showing it. His background only increased his will to fight despite the challenges.

“Running up the hill might be tough,” Kelly said of her chances. “You just prepared yourself to climb the hill harder.”

Even under the best of circumstances, Kelly would have stood a chance of winning a congressional seat. When Kelly announced her candidacy last year, she was to represent Tennessee’s 5th District, an area that encompasses all of Nashville – a Democratic stronghold in the state for nearly 150 years. She had expected to face a tough primary against longtime Rep. Jim Cooper (D).

But that was before the Tennessee state legislature drew a new electoral map, which was approved this year. It cuts the city of Nashville, home to less than 700,000 people, into three parts, dividing one of the state’s few Democratic districts into three conservative-leaning neighborhoods.

How the redistricting is shaping the US House 2022 map

Kelly is now the only Democrat representing what has become the 7th congressional district, which stretches from the Kentucky border through midstate and into the far reaches of Alabama.

In a midterm election in which the Democratic majority in Congress is on a knife edge, splitting a strong Democratic district into three Republican seats would not only diminish Nashville’s voting power, one of fastest growing cities in the country, but could also help return power to House Republicans by the end of the year.

State Republicans have denied that the new district lines are gerrymandered.

“The recommended maps are fair and legal, do not upset any legislators currently in office, and preserve, as much as possible, the current makeup of the district,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R) said in January, Nashville’s WKRN TV reported.

But Democrats and suffrage advocates have called the redistricting a brazen attempt to dilute black political power in the state.

In January, Cooper told the Tennessean: “Gerrymandering is an extinction event for the political life of Nashville.” Cooper represented the city for nearly 20 years, but after the new map was released, he chose not to run for office.

“Nashville is out of representation,” said Allison Anoll, an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. Instead, the new districts — which affect 2.5 million Tennesseans, according to Anoll — mean Nashville residents must compete for attention and resources with counties that have vastly different populations and interests.

Sekou Franklin, a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University, defined the impact this way: Future lawmakers “don’t have to set foot in Nashville to govern.”

It would be “devastating” to the entire city, but it would effectively silence black Nashville residents, Franklin added. Republicans could campaign on corner issues that appealed to white conservative voters and still “win” black communities.

Kelly won’t let that happen, she said.

A local activist, Kelly is proud of her roots in East Nashville — a historically black part of town. But his 14-year stint as a civil servant began with “shady stuff” his dad threw at him, Kelly said.

“I’m just out of college, waiting for the WNBA to call me so I can hoop, living off credit cards,” Kelly recalled. On her 23rd birthday, her father gave her a box wrapped in a big bow. But when she opened it, she found nothing but a pair of scissors – “for me to cut out my credit cards” – and a job application.

For Kelly, it was a wake-up call to begin the next phase of her life. Her dad had some suggestions: She was great with people, why not work at her local community center?

She fell in love with working at the Napier Community Center, Kelly said. She spent time with the older people of the neighborhood, from whom she learned to play the piano and Cutthroat Spades. In the afternoon, the center has become a hub for young people in the neighborhood.

“I could have retired doing this job,” Kelly said. But after 14 years, two children and her rise to leadership, Kelly found she was still living paycheck to paycheck.

She also witnessed the kind of systemic issues that seemed beyond her ability to control as a community center worker, she said: entrenched poverty, over-policing, gun violence. In 2015, Kelly began working in advocacy, going to community and activist meetings and speaking out about the issues she was facing.

She took a particular interest in labor issues and co-founded the Stand Up Nashville advocacy coalition in 2016. Since then, she has been credited with some major labor victories, including a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) this would ensure that the city’s new Major League Soccer stadium would come with substantial community investment.

Like other Liberal candidates, Kelly is campaigning for the expansion of affordable housing, Medicare for All, LGBTQ rights and building the kind of green energy infrastructure that advocates say would help reverse climate change.

But it’s her approach that can make her stand out. Kelly often swears up a storm, sandwiched with the kind of talk familiar to DC politics buffs: procurement policies, labor contracts, infrastructure. She hopes to normalize these kinds of conversations between voters, she said: “A lot of times we have bad politicians because we don’t know what to expect from them. So we don’t have an accurate measuring stick.

She faces significant challenges outside of Tennessee’s electoral maps. She has raised more than $700,000 — more than previous Democratic candidates combined, according to her campaign — but her Republican opponent, Rep. Mark Green, reportedly raised over $1.3 million for this election cycle.

She also needs to do what Green doesn’t need to do: pull together a broad, multiracial coalition and vote at high levels, Franklin said.

Engaging those voters is tough in a midterm election, but Kelly faces another headwind. Enthusiasm for Democrats appears to have waned nationally and in the state, Franklin added.

Kelly said she believes with sustained organizing, Tennessee could follow in Georgia’s footsteps in 2020 — when a decade of Democratic mobilization efforts paid off with two Senate seats and a victory for the President Biden.

But Franklin is skeptical: In terms of a unified democratic infrastructure, the state has “a long way to go” before it can catch up with Georgia. Georgia also has among the highest rates of black voters — the cornerstone of the Southern Democratic base.

Despite the odds, however, experts say Kelly’s campaign is not a dupe race: In a storied city at risk of losing its political voice, it’s important for marginalized voters to see candidates fight for them.

“It’s always important to have challengers, to have a race that shows the differences between the candidates. It’s part of what we think makes a democracy a democracy,” said Anoll, of Vanderbilt. She also said Kelly’s run could fuel the kind of organizing push needed to help Democrats win back representation in the state.

Franklin sees an important symbolic message in Kelly’s campaign. As a queer, progressive black woman, Kelly represents a version of the American South that has always been there but ignored.

“Even with all the racial terrorism that has existed historically in Tennessee, we have the alternate history, or the more complicated history, of resistance,” he added.

For her part, Kelly is not only up for the challenge, she said she is confident in her chances. She hopes her teenage daughter, who visits college campuses, will go to Howard University — not only because it’s a historically black university, but also because Kelly wants her nearby if elected.

And she also expects to be on the basketball court.

“I can’t wait to get to Congress and dunk on Ted Cruz and any other Republican who thinks they’re a baller,” Kelly said. “And I will take anyone on my team. Congressman Waters, I’ll take it. I take all the OGs. We’re going to go out and hit people. »

“Give me the ball. I’m open,” Kelly continues. “I can’t wait.”