Odessa Kelly’s Case for Nashville


Ainsley Gill, Contributor

Image Credits: Joey Kemeny

As a child, Nashville native Odessa Kelly never imagined she’d be involved in politics. Now, she’s the progressive Democrat running for Congress in Tennessee’s District 7, supported  by the same Justice Democrats that propelled AOC to her Congressional seat in 2018. This week, Kelly held an event on campus hosted by Vanderbilt College Democrats, sharing her story, why she decided to run, and her thoughts on some of the major issues facing the Nashville community.

Kelly began by introducing herself as a long-time resident of the city, born and raised on the old East side of Nashville in a predominantly black neighborhood. She attended public school and went on to graduate Summa Cum Laude from Tennessee State University with a major in business administration. After graduation, Kelly pursued a career in the WNBA and was in talks to join a team that unfortunately fell through at the last minute. Kelly was very honest about her story and life experiences, explaining that she didn’t know what to do next and lived off of credit cards and her parents for a year or two. 

After pressure from her parents to step up, Kelly began working for Metro parks in city service. She loved her job and enjoyed working with the community, running a local Girl Scout troop, a Boy Scout troop, and even a basketball team. However, when the 2008 recession hit, her hours were rolled back, making it even harder to make ends meet at home with her partner and their two kids. In response, Kelly got a second job, working the day shift at Metro parks and the night shift with FedEx. However, even after that, Kelly, like many of those employed by the city, was still living paycheck to paycheck.

At the same time, Kelly had an inside look at the change Nashville underwent as it became an “it city”. As more and more people moved in, Kelly noticed that the city’s infrastructure couldn’t support new growth, and the influx of new residents made it even more expensive for residents who had been here for years. She describes attending over 25 going away parties in the past few years – all for teachers, custodians, and social service workers that could no longer afford to live in the city they had served all their lives. Kelly’s realization that the city is no longer supporting the people who made Nashville the city it is today was one of the major factors in her decision to run for Congress. 

Kelly then shifted the conversation from her personal history to breaking down the key issues of her campaign. She pointed out that, for many Nashville residents, the issue isn’t unemployment; it’s underemployment. Nashville has an unemployment rate lower than the national average, yet most residents are on the brink of poverty even after working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Kelly was part of a group pushing for a local hire program which would mandate that any employer taking public dollars must employ at least 40% Nashville residents. Through the measure passed overwhelmingly in Nashville, it was preempted and blocked at the state level.

Kelly’s key point of disillusionment with the ability of those in power to advocate for the working class in Nashville came in 2017. That year, the city claimed it didn’t have the funds to provide a cost of living raise for metro employees, heat public schools in the winter, or to keep the public hospital open. However, the city announced later that same year that they spent $275 million on a new soccer stadium. This moment inspired Kelly to start Stand Up Nashville with some friends to be a watchdog for future development and monitor exactly where Nashville’s tax dollars are going. Under her leadership, Stand Up Nashville fought to create the first community benefits agreement in Nashville.

For Kelly, the events of 2020 were the final push that propelled her onto the campaign trail. She describes the year as a “reflection of ourselves as Americans,” emphasizing that it revealed a key weakness in our country – that we don’t hold ourselves accountable. For Kelly, doing better starts with politicians. That’s why, after over two years of being nominated to run and being approached by Alex Rojas, Executive Director of the Justice Democrats, she finally decided to enter the race.

Kelly then transitioned to explaining her perspective on the upcoming race and how it’s evolved since she decided to run. Initially, Kelly was planning to primary Democrat Jim Cooper, who’s held the seat since Kelly was in diapers. When an audience member asked if she was intimidated at the prospect of going up against a Congressman with so much power and such a long history in the district, Kelly explained that she wasn’t scared. She was running to challenge his seat because she strongly believed that Congress needed the perspective of working class people like her, who weren’t afraid to stand up for their values and the American people.

However, in February, Kelly and her team got news that would reshape the race. The governor had just signed the state’s new electoral maps into law. These new maps split what had long been a solidly Democratic congressional district into 3 in an attempt to gerrymander Democrats out of a seat. Now, Kelly is no longer primarying Cooper, but running directly against Republican Congressman Mark Greene in Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District. Kelly and her campaign don’t seem unnerved by the change, emphasizing that no matter where the Tennessee legislature moves district lines, the issues stay the same.

As she looks ahead to her race against Greene, Kelly had one thing to say: “The only thing he has on me is privilege and I’m gonna challenge that privilege.”