Politics

Odessa Kelly could be the next out member of Congress. She’ll need to defeat a Democrat to do it.

Out Congressional candidate and organizer Odessa Kelly.
Out Congressional candidate and organizer Odessa Kelly.Photo: Odessa Kelly for Congress

Out gay congressional candidate Odessa Kelly is running for office for one main reason.

“I needed to,” she told LGBTQ Nation. “I couldn’t sleep at night thinking about the impact of what this seat has on not just the community here in Nashville, but the collective impact that someone in a congressional seat has across the country.”

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Kelly, a progressive Democrat and local organizer, is running in Tennessee’s fifth district, which encompasses Nashville and the surrounding areas.

A Nashville native, Kelly grew up in a working-class neighborhood and spent fourteen years working for the city’s parks and recreation department, where she was eventually forced to work part-time due to budget cuts. While there, she witnessed the families she worked with struggle to obtain healthcare, pay rent, and put food on the table.

“I was bothered by the fact that we have public policies that trap people into poverty instead of building pathways out of poverty,” she said.

This frustration led Kelly to become the co-founder and Executive Director of Stand Up Nashville, a nonprofit that focuses on racial and social justice work through an economic lens.

Kelly’s work is well known in the Nashville community. She and the Stand Up Nashville team are especially known for their work in striking a historic community benefits agreement with Nashville’s Major League Soccer team regarding the building of a new stadium.

The agreement included a $15.50 minimum wage for stadium workers, affordable housing available on the land next to the stadium, as well as a child care center with tuition on a sliding scale.

“When it passed…the whole city was happy,” Kelly said, “and that is what leadership and public policy are supposed to be. It’s supposed to be something that makes the city proud and can bring people joy.”

In the Democratic primary, Kelly will challenge Rep. Jim Cooper, a moderate Democrat who has represented the district since 2003 and is a member of the House of Representatives’ centrist Democratic Blue Dog Coalition.

While he is pro-LGBTQ rights, Cooper has a conservative-leaning voting history. He was one of 11 Democrats who voted against President Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package. He has also supported Republican efforts to cut Social Security and introduce caps on Medicare and Medicaid spending.

Kelly, who is being backed by the Justice Democrats, the group that helped get Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress, said she absolutely has a chance to beat Cooper.

“I’m a Nashville native,” she said. “I’m well known. I earned my reputation as someone who is for the people and someone who looks at being solution-oriented. We’re tired of tradition here. For years and years and years, the leadership of our city has been picked by the size of their pocketbooks, and that has to change.”

One of Kelly’s priorities is combatting gentrification. On her street in East Nashville,  she said, she and her neighbor are the only two Black families left.

“Black people already feel like they have to prove they’re part of the American fabric. Gentrification is much deeper than just location or relocation. It’s part of your identity, who you are. People identify with the place they call home.”

If elected, Kelly will become the first out Black woman to serve in Congress.

“I think it’s pretty cool to make history,” she said.

She added that her election would be especially meaningful in the wake of a bill, H.B. 0800, currently making its way through the Tennessee legislature that prevents the use of textbooks or supplemental materials “that promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.”

“That means if we were to make history, my story won’t be told in textbooks,” she said. “That’s insane. Kids like me deserve to see themselves. We’re as much a part of the American fabric as anyone else.”

After launching her campaign, Kelly raised $100,000 in less than 36 hours. She has received donations from all over the country, she said, including from some of the U.S. territories.

“It’s a humbling feeling to know people everywhere are behind you and want to see this change. This country is on the precipice of something, and I’m glad people want to be part of the history we want to make here in Nashville.”

She wants voters to know that she will unapologetically speak for working-class people and people of color, and that a vote for her is an investment in their communities.

“I have the heart and passion to be someone who centers people in the middle of decisions we make,” she said. “That’s how I have been successful here on the local level…I want to take that same energy and ethos to Congress. I want people to have joy and for them to be inspired by the people who are sitting in those seats.”

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