Jan 26, 2022 - Politics

Retiring Rep. Jim Cooper says Republicans "savaged Nashville"

U.S. Rep Jim Cooper.
Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, who sat at the mountaintop of Nashville Democratic politics for decades and mentored a generation of civic leaders, announced his retirement Tuesday after a bruising redistricting battle.

Why it matters: The General Assembly's plan to split Nashville among three congressional districts would have made him a re-election underdog.

  • His retirement at the end of his current term, along with redistricting, plunges Nashville politics into a state of upheaval.
  • As the city faced disasters and meteoric growth, Cooper, 67, was a steady standard bearer. The Cooper family ā€” including his brother, Nashville Mayor John Cooper ā€” is a local dynasty.
  • Cooper is the 29th Democratic House incumbent to announce retirement in the run-up to the midterms.

Driving the news: Cooper had more than $1 million in his campaign coffers and was well-positioned to win against a primary challenge from his left in Tennessee's 5th congressional district, which represents Davidson, Dickson, and Cheatham counties.

  • But he said he chose to step aside after the district was redrawn into one that sprawls across six counties.
  • Analysts say the new district voted for then-President Trump by more than 9 points in 2020. Lawmakers signed off on the district map and sent it to Gov. Bill Lee this week for final approval.
  • Liberal Nashville could soon be represented by at least two, and likely three, Republicans in the House.

The big picture: Cooper earned a reputation as a budget-minded policy wonk, but he remained embedded in Nashville and was easily accessible to constituents despite serving in Congress for a combined 32 years. He first represented the 4th from 1983-1995, then the 5th district starting in 2003.

  • When a derecho ripped through Nashville in 2020, Cooper busted out his chainsaw to clear fallen trees for neighbors. He bragged in his retirement announcement about making his cell number publicly available.
  • He identified himself as a moderate Blue Dog Democrat, and sometimes frustrated liberals because he was slow to embrace party priorities. He moved to the left in recent years.

Zoom out: A job on Cooper's staff was a launching pad for countless political careers, from political consultants to attorneys and future candidates.

  • Metro Clerk Brenda Wynn, NFL executive Katie Hill, nonprofit executive Lisa Quigley, Vanderbilt associate vice chancellor Alfred Degrafinreid II, former deputy mayor Greg Hinote, and businessman Bert Mathews are all past Cooper staffers.

What's next: Cooper says he will return his campaign contributions to donors.

  • "I don't know what the future holds but I am ready to get another job next year and make up for lost time with family and friends," Cooper said in a statement.
  • Cooper's wife, Martha Cooper, died last year after a protracted battle with Alzheimer's disease.
Cooper: Republicans "savaged Nashville"
The Tennessee House chambers in 2021.
The Tennessee House chambers in 2021. Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP

The congressman tells Axios he is sailing toward retirement "happy," and "as healthy as ever." But he is still stinging over the decision by state Republicans to carve up the 5th congressional district.

  • "I'm a realist," Cooper tells Axios. "I've been fighting this redistricting for a year. It came out like I predicted. This is a cruel blow to all people of Nashville, certainly to minority groups, but to every resident of Nashville."

Cooper says he fears the city will become an afterthought to its new Republican House representatives.

  • "Our Republican legislature has savaged Nashville in order to get one more vote in Congress."
  • "If history is any guide, they're going to have an overwhelming majority in Congress anyway. See, we used to have Tennessee Republicans like Howard Baker, Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker, Bill Frist. That political party in Tennessee is dead. You could deal with those folks."

The other side: State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said last week that the maps were logical and fair and that they would "give all of Tennesseans a strong voice in Washington."

Flashback: Cooper says he hopes his legacy is that of "civility" and "bipartisanship." He pointed to his leading role in passing legislation to create the Space Force, the first new branch of the U.S. military since 1947.

  • "All my bills have been bipartisan," Cooper says, adding, "the Democratic Party does not have a monopoly on good ideas. Republicans have good ideas too, and you have to be willing to listen and learn."
Cooper on the future of Tennessee Dems
Illustration of pin the tail on the democratic donkey with lots of tails
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Rep. Cooper remains optimistic about the future of the Democratic Party in Tennessee despite a decade of election losses.

  • Tennessee's Democratic Party is in a state of "rebuild," he says.
  • "We've neglected rural areas too much, but so has the national party," Cooper says. "Until we have a message that resonates in rural America, we'll always be hurting ā€¦ You have to have local people who are well known and trusted."

The intrigue: Cooper says an unknown Democrat could still emerge victorious in the 5th.

  • "One reason I succeeded is the legislature didn't know I existed. There are future Jim or Julie Coopers out there who nobody knows about, but they're the exciting candidates."
  • Nashville is an "exciting, growing city," Cooper says, "but new generations have to learn more about politics. Because I served so long, I may have squelched the careers of other people. They have to reintroduce themselves to the public."
Reactions to Cooper's announcement

Former Vice President Al Gore: "What an incredible tenure."

Lisa Quigley, former chief of staff: "He didn't think the job was about fundraising and being on cable news. It was about casework and protecting America through his committee work."

Metro Clerk Brenda Wynn: "While some might call him a Blue Dog, Iā€™d say that Jim Cooper was a statesman who valued bipartisanship and never allowed his Democratic designation to keep him from working across the aisle."

Bert Mathews, Cooper's first chief of staff: "Jim has dedicated his life to making a difference in the world, and thank goodness he has much more to give."

Republican candidate Robby Starbuck: "A new era begins now."

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