This election cycle U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) has a number of challengers for his position as U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee’s 5th district. He is facing local activist Justin Jones, Democratic socialist Meredith Mattlin, former Republican Joshua Rawlings, as well as Attorney Keeda Haynes in the Democratic primary.
Haynes is bringing a set of unique experiences, not only is she a former Nashville public defender but she also spent time in a federal prison. Her experience as college student at Tennessee State University (TSU) to spending time behind bars, to becoming an attorney and working at the public defender’s office inspired her to take her working in the public sector to the next level.
We recently sat down with Haynes to discuss her decision to run for Congress, and what issues are the most important to District 5.
Nashville Voice: What made you decide to run for congress?
Keeda Haynes: I decided to run for congress because I think that Nashville is looking for a fresh face and a new voice in DC to represent them on issues that are most important them here in Nashville.
NV: How long did it take you to make this decision?
KH: I was first approached about this back in August of 2019 where I had a couple of conversations with some organizations that were wanting to support a candidate in the primary against the incumbent. At the time they didn’t think that had the resources that they needed to run a race here because they were running races all over the rest of United States. This led me to continue talking with some friends and family and I began to take the idea serious.
Once I made the decision I began to focus on warping up my open cases in the public defenders office making sure there was a smooth transition. We then filed the campaign paperwork with the Federal Election Commission.
NV: A lot of times when someone is running against an incumbent they are almost saying that person should be fired. Why do you believe it is time for new blood in District 5?
KH: I think there’s a time and a place for people to legislate and Congressman Cooper has served Nashville well, but he is no longer in touch with the constituents here and a lot of the issues the people are facing.
I just think that people are looking for somebody that will stand-up for them and that is going to advocate for them, and that is what I did as a public defender. For six and half years I stood up for my clients, people that are commonly considered the least of our community. I will be ready to stand up for the people of Nashville the same way in Washington.
NV: Why do you think the current congressmen is not often challenged on the issues that are important, such as health care, affordable housing, and criminal justice? Why has he gotten a pass for so long?
KH: I think he has been in his seat for so long because of name recognition. But he doesn’t get a pass, we have people in Nashville, in Cheatham and Dickson Counties, which are a part of the district as well, experiencing issue with health care, issues with housing, homelessness, criminal justice issue, all of those things and we need somebody that’s gonna be in Washington that is going bring those issues to the forefront. I plan on introducing legislations around those issues and will fight for changes that are gonna be beneficial to the citizens of District 5.
NV: One of those main issues we hear a lot about in District 5 is affordable housing. People can’t afford to live here, especially those that were born here and raised here. Do you have any plans that you could do about that?
KH: I have experienced the affordable housing situation here myself. I moved out to Goodlettsville because I could not afford to live in the city because it has become very expensive here. So I get the affordable housing part of it. We know of the recent study that came out that says to live comfortably here in Nashville and you have to make at least 80 thousand dollars a year. Even someone like me with 3 degrees still has to work 2 jobs to make that minimum threshold. You include the situation that many of us have with student loans and making ends meet becomes very difficult.
It is these issues that people are facing and dealing with here in Nashville and because these are also the very same issues that I have personally experienced I think I am the person that is very qualified to advocate for people on these issues.
NV: What is your background and what led you up to this point in your life.
KH: I’m originally from Franklin Tennessee, born and raised in Franklin and lived there until I went to college at TSU where I majored in criminal justice and psychology. I have a law degree from Nashville School of Law and I have a Master of Law from Stetson University in Florida.
Prior to graduating from TSU I had a situation where I got indicted with 29 other people in Federal Court here in the Middle District in Tennessee for various mail fraud and money laundering charges because the man I was dating told me he was sending cellphones and pagers and it turned out to be marijuana. Everyone plead guilty except for me, I was the only person that choose to exercise my right to hold the government to their burden and I went to trial. I was acquitted of 6 charges and I was found guilty of aiding and abiding a conspiracy and to distribute 100 to 400 kilograms of marijuana.
In the federal system the time is done based upon the amount of drugs. So in the federal system there are federal mandatory minimum sentences, so with that amount of marijuana involved it triggered a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. When I went to sentencing the judge actually sentenced me to 84 months which equaled 7 years. The judge told me that anyone of my intelligence should have known I was dealing with something illegal and I was lucky to be acquitted of the other chargers and I was continuing to lie to myself. Two weeks after I graduated from TSU my parents had to drop me off at Alderson Federal Prison Camp.
Because I went to trial I had the right to appeal my case and was able to get my sentencing reduced from 84 months to 60 months. When I got out I worked for my attorney that represented me as a legal assistant. I continued to work for him as I attended night school to receive my law degree. I was sworn in as an attorney in Tennessee in December of 2012, and I started working the public defenders office in June of 2013. I was working at the public defenders office until I filed my paperwork and prepared to move onto the next level of my life.
NV: What are your most important issues?
KH: My most important issue is of course criminal justice reform. Housing, jobs, health care, even environmental justice when it comes to this particular issues. Those are the things I will be talking about on the campaign trial. We cannot talk about any of those issues in a silo, I think all of those issues work together. We can’t talk about affordable housing without talking about people making a living wage. You can’t have somebody making $8 or $9 dollars an hour and think they can afford housing.
One of the things we have to do is raise the federal minimum wage, so people can afford affordable housing. We have to give people healthcare, we have so many people in our district that cannot afford any healthcare. And of course we have the issue of criminal justice reform. The entire system needs to be changed, from money bail, keeping people in cages because they can’t afford to make bond, to prosecutorial discretion, which I experienced when they offered me 30 months in prison but because I exercised my right to go to trial I was looking at 60 months.
NV: Thank you for sharing with us today and telling us your story. Our last question is how do you plan on winning?
KH: A lot of hard work. It’s gonna take all of us to do this and that is the exciting thing about this. This race is not just about me, this is a race for all of us, a win for me is a win for all of us. I hope that people are excited about having someone who represents all of us. By winning we would have our first African-American from the district, the first African-American female and somebody with a criminal record as well too. So this is us, this is the everyday average person. What i hope is people walk away for this is to be inspired and think to themselves if she do that I can do something that people told me I couldn’t never do as well.