Expressing Gratitude for a Tennessee Congressman's Decades of Service
Commentary: I was saddened by Jim Cooper’s resignation.
We were in law school together. Class of 1980.
Jim was always going to get into politics back home in Tennessee. (He was a Rhodes Scholar, a former governor’s son, and the grandson of a former speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives.)
In 1982 Jim was elected to serve in the U.S. Congress, soundly beating the daughter of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker. He’s now served over 30 years. That’s worth pausing over, as when some couple is having a 60th wedding anniversary. Hard to do, these days. Many small compromises and much hard work. And maybe sprigs of love and loyalty.
Over 30 years as steady Jim Cooper: a gentleman from Tennessee standing for honesty and for liberal Democratic policies; a moderate, and eventually the head of the Blue Dog Coalition; and scandal-free. A good man. A man you could rely on. He never gave up, during decades that weren’t always pleasant. Just kept winning elections and doing a highly competent job in a tough position.
This year, Republican gerrymandering got him. The district in which he ran unopposed in 2020 was replaced by one having a better than 15% edge for Republicans in registered voters. Tennessee’s red lilliputians wanted to get him and seem to have succeeded.
I lived in Tennessee briefly one summer. As an unwelcome civil rights worker. In Mississippi Delta country, just east of Memphis. Fayette County. I mention it because when I met Jim in law school, and when I read later of his successful career, I knew a little about how conservative and racist parts of Tennessee could be, at least back then. That muted any tendency I might have had to complain that his politics were too moderate. But then, I was never gonna get elected dogcatcher. In any state.
Jim once called Congress “a farm league for K Street,” saying members were so preoccupied with what they’d do when they left, such as becoming lobbyists, that they fell into serving special interests rather than the public. In 2011, he said it was “enraging” that his colleagues were posturing so badly for the voters that they were “taking the cheap political hit instead of studying the problem before us.”
Jim would have been challenged in the Democratic Primary by Odessa Kelly, a more progressive Black woman. That’s as it should be, letting the voters decide; but instead the Tennessee Legislature has decided, which may be legal but is highly unfortunate, and unfair to local voters.
So, this column from far beyond his district is a quiet, friendly wave good-bye, and an expression of gratitude. I’m grateful to Jim, for his service. And his quiet competence. I’m also grateful to New Mexico, for taking the lead in voter-protection, not voter suppression, in this dangerous season for democracy.
The other Tennessee news of note this week involved a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel that illustrates the Holocaust, with the Jews drawn as mice and the Nazis as cats. It’s vivid and historically accurate. The McMinn County School Board unanimously banned it from the school library. The animals say “Damn” a few times, and there’s “nudity” (a tiny drawing of an unclothed mouse who has just slit her wrists in a bathtub – did they ban pantsless Donald Duck too?). Has Tennessee progressed since the Scopes Trial?
Maybe resigning makes sense. The state doesn’t deserve you, Jim.