Former public defender Keeda Haynes, who was also formerly incarcerated, is running for Congress in Tennessee, challenging a nearly two-decade Democratic incumbent and hoping to become the first Black woman the state sends to Congress.
In the Aug. 6 primary election, Haynes is a long shot against Rep. Jim Cooper, who’s held the seat in the state’s 5th district, which includes Nashville, for 17 years.
But Haynes, 42, thinks her district is ready for change. At about the same time Cooper began representing the 5th district in early 2003, Haynes started her time behind bars. She spent three years and 10 months in prison for a marijuana-related felony she says she’s innocent of.
After her release, Haynes completed her law degree and practiced as a public defender in Nashville for over six years. Haynes thinks her time in prison — and her experience defending others caught up in the country’s racist criminal justice system — are precisely what would make her a great congresswoman.
“I am running because looking around I can see that people that look like me, that have the same issues I have, we were not being represented in this district,” Haynes told HuffPost.
The last time Tennessee sent a Black person to Congress was in the 1990s. Haynes’ district, which is nearly 25% Black, has never had a Black representative in Congress. Haynes called the lack of representation “really disappointing” and “very telling.”
“It’s important to have someone in Congress that can view the policy from the lens of being formerly incarcerated, as a woman, an African American, saddled with student loan debt, from a working class family,” Haynes said.
Haynes’ status — an underdog up against a longtime politician — recalls the dynamic in Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 upset in New York, and Haynes is similarly running on a progressive platform. She supports Medicare for All and criminal justice reform, including eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing, and has joined recent nationwide calls to defund the police.
The political newcomer is up against Cooper, 66, a white, more moderate Democrat whose father was governor in the 1940s and whose brother John is Nashville’s mayor.
In the safely Democratic district with no Republican in the race, whoever wins in August would almost certainly be elected to Congress in November.
Haynes grew up in a close-knit family in Franklin, Tennessee, about a 25-minute drive south of Nashville.
“I never envisioned myself in politics,” Haynes said. “It wasn’t my plan for my life, but neither was going to prison, so here we are.”
At age 19, she met an older man who, after they started dating, asked her to receive packages for his cell phone and beeper business that ended up containing marijuana. She and a couple dozen others were eventually indicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana. She was acquitted of six charges, but found guilty of one felony: aiding and abetting the sale of marijuana. Due to mandatory minimums, she was sentenced to seven years, later appealed down to five years, of which she served nearly four.
In 2003, two weeks after she graduated from Tennessee State University with a degree in criminal justice and psychology, her parents dropped her off to serve her time in prison. Behind bars, she studied for the LSAT and helped other people in prison with their own legal issues.
After getting out, she enrolled in Nashville School of Law, going to class at night and working by day as a legal secretary for the attorney who’d defended her. She began working at the public defender’s office in 2013. She now serves as a senior legal advisor for the nonprofit Free Hearts, which advocates for incarcerated people and their families.
“In Congress, it’s important that we center the voices of people formerly incarcerated,” Haynes said, saying that members of Congress who craft legislation around issues like restoring voting rights for the formerly incarcerated need to “understand the impact these laws have on people’s lives.”
Due to her felony record, Haynes had to petition a court earlier this year to restore some of her civil rights. (Without such a process, she wouldn’t have been eligible to run for office on the state or local level, but could do so at the federal level.) She had her voting rights restored a few years after her release, once her “supervision” period was complete.
“When talking about criminal justice reform, we get caught up in the numbers. We’re not numbers, we’re people, we have lives,” Haynes said.
“I am one of those numbers,” she added, reciting her inmate number from memory: 00017-011.
For Haynes, many of the issues she’s pushing in her campaign — criminal justice reform, better access to affordable housing, raising the minimum wage — are part of the same fight.
“Everything is connected: if people don’t have jobs, if people don’t have housing, if they’re living in neighborhoods that are overpoliced, there’s going to be this disparity,” Haynes said, speaking of racial disparities throughout the justice system, from police stops to sentencing. “If you have police criminalizing the color of people’s skin, they’re going to end up in the criminal justice system.”
Her upcoming primary comes as people in prison are “ending up with death sentences,” as she put it, due to deadly coronavirus outbreaks, and as thousands have taken to the streets over the last eight weeks protesting against racism and police brutality.
Haynes criticized her opponent, Cooper, for “only choosing to talk about criminal justice issues now because it’s popular,” despite representing a district that has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.
Cooper pushed back on Haynes’ characterization, touting his record in Congress, which includes his co-sponsorship of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that passed the House last month, and his vote in favor of the First Step criminal justice reforms of 2018, and 2010′s Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine.
Haynes’ primary follows two recent wins for progressive Black candidates: Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones in New York’s 16th and 17th congressional districts, respectively. Similar dynamics were at play in Charles Booker’s narrow primary loss in Kentucky.
In Tennessee — which, like many other states, has to face sending voters to the polls amid a pandemic — all voters were eligible to submit ballots by mail, thanks to a court ruling in June.
The race remains an uphill battle for Haynes. She trails Cooper in the latest fundraising numbers from June, having raised about $73,000 to his $674,000, according to OpenSecrets. (Joshua Rawlings, a 27-year-old former Republican and small business owner, who is also running, has raised $17,000).
“With Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd ... people took notice, said, ‘Hey, we need to protest in the streets, but we also need to look at who is in office and determine if they represent who we are,’” Haynes said.