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Odessa Kelly looks to make history in Tennessee House race

Would be first out Black woman to serve in Congress

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Odessa Kelly is running for Tennessee’s redrawn seventh congressional district. (Photo by Shance Ware)

Odessa Kelly is the archetype of a grassroots community advocate turned politician. Her long, wavy locs frame the kind of smile that will lend you a cup of sugar or invite you to an impromptu backyard barbecue just because. Kelly speaks like someone who has been in the trenches, can relate to all our struggles, and is authentically rooting for our successes. 

A native of Nashville, Kelly grew up on the east side of the city in a poor working class neighborhood riddled by poverty and gun violence. An active and creative child, Kelly played Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball and used her Barbie dolls as hostages in her imaginative G.I. Joe schemes. 

“Even though I’m from the hood and we weren’t rich by any means, I had a very blessed childhood,” Kelly said. “I grew up in a house with both of my parents and had a very solid foundation.”

After graduating from Stratford High School (now Stratford STEM Magnet School), Kelly attended Tennessee State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and later, Cumberland University, where she earned a master’s degree in public service.  

Kelly is running against a Trump ally, incumbent Rep. Mark Green (R), for Tennessee’s redrawn seventh congressional district, a formerly Democratic-majority district ruptured by Republican-led gerrymandering that echoes the South’s history of political turmoil.

If elected, Kelly would make history on multiple fronts — she would be the first out Black woman elected to represent Tennessee, the first out Black lesbian to serve in the U.S. House and the sixth openly gay woman to serve in Congress. (Former Rep. Barbara Jordan was revealed to be in a same-sex domestic partnership in her obituary.)

And Kelly is ready to make history along with her state next month, as long as all eligible Tennesseans get out and vote. 

“2020 showed us that Tennessee is not a red state, it’s a non-voting state,” Kelly told the Blade in an interview. 

Kelly credits the Justice Democrats for being unrelenting supporters of her campaign.

Surprisingly, Kelly was unaware of the history she would make as the first openly gay Black woman to be elected in Tennessee. 

“It didn’t hit me until after I decided to run and I was literally reading the prospectus that was put together for me,” Kelly said.

For more than a decade, Kelly worked in the Nashville Department of Parks and Recreation as the leader of the Napier Community Center and executive director of Stand Up Nashville

In 2018, when Kelly learned the city awarded a $275 million bond to billionaire John Ingram for the construction of Geodis Park, a stadium for the city’s new major league soccer team Nashville SC, Stand Up Nashville got to work securing a community benefits agreement (CBA) with Ingram. 

The unprecedented agreement secured affordable housing, a $15.50 an hour minimum wage for all stadium workers, affordable childcare and workforce development.  

“That CBA was our pride and joy,” Kelly said. 

But Kelly recalls her proudest moment as the time she overheard a group of teenagers she was working with at Napier Community Center discuss how they don’t have to worry about what will happen to them after graduation because they have the community benefits agreement. 

“You preach some of these things so much the kids just roll their eyes because they hear it 24/7, but at that point, I knew every bit of stress was worth it,” Kelly said. 

Kelly’s love for her city and community didn’t stop with Stand Up Nashville. Now, Kelly channels that same energy and hard work into her campaign to stand up for Tennessee in Washington. 

Kelly is a self-proclaimed Blue Dog Democrat whose platform includes Medicare for all and the Green New Deal, which focuses on combating climate change by moving away from fossil fuels and creating millions of high-paying jobs. 

“The Green New Deal is me thinking about pathways out of poverty,” Kelly said. 

Outside of the political arena, Kelly is a mother of two and a foodie who enjoys gaming, sports, and listening to music. Running for public office can be frenetic, but when Kelly needs to refocus and take a deep breath, she turns on her go-to song, Meek Mill’s “Amen.” 

“I’m from the South so I like soulful rap and anything that has a good beat,” Kelly said. 

When asked about her plans if she doesn’t win her election, Kelly said she is still considering all options. 

“I’m gonna need a minute to make a decision about what I do next. All I want to do is try to win this race,” Kelly said. “And I hope I’m showing up well and speaking to the urgencies of the majority of you out there.” 

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Politics

Will Rollins campaign not just about gunning for anti-LGBTQ Congressman Ken Calvert

Gay prosecutor running in Calif. 41st Congressional District

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Two years ago, openly gay prosecutor Will Rollins launched his first bid for public office and nearly defeated incumbent Republican Congressman Ken Calvert, who has represented California’s 41st Congressional District since the presidential administration of George H.W. Bush.

In this election cycle, the Democratic challenger believes he is even better positioned to win the seat, which could tip control of the U.S. House of Representatives to his party now that Republicans have only a feeble five-member majority in the chamber.

And if accurate proxies can be found in the results of recent polls, quarterly fundraising metrics, and extra muscle deployed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, it appears Rollins’s confidence is shared by critical masses of voters, donors, and party leaders.

Speaking with the Washington Blade by phone on June 13, Rollins explained why his candidacy is resonating so strongly with constituents from across the political spectrum, including key swaths of Republicans and the 90,000 Independents “who are going to decide this election.”

On the one hand, Rollins said he is buoyed by flagging support for his opponent. He argued that instead of working to deliver results for his constituents like “high paying jobs, better wages, and better benefits for workers,” Calvert has instead spent much of his time in Congress helping to fuel costly culture wars and embracing right-wing extremism while enriching himself through “legalized corruption” schemes and undermining the justice system and rule of law.

At the same time, Rollins said that his background in law enforcement, his political orientation as a moderate, and his policy agenda, which includes a focus on popular and often populist reforms, has proven to be a winning formula on the campaign trail from the westernmost parts of Southern California’s Inland Empire to the Colorado Desert town of Palm Springs.

The city, home to a thriving LGBTQ community, helped make the 41st District far purpler after congressional maps were redrawn to include the region in 2022. Rollins said the redistricting helps to explain “part of why people are so bullish on flipping the seat.”

He explained, “Calvert has historically [represented] deep red parts of southern California, and that used to include Murrieta and northern Temecula,” Rollins said. When the new maps were drawn, “he lost those two cities and he gained the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, La Quinta, Indian Wells, all of which had previously been represented by a Democrat, Raul Ruiz.”

Rollins is well positioned at this point in the race

Reflecting on his performance in the midterm elections, Rollins noted that 2022 saw higher turnout among Republican voters and lower turnout among Democratic voters, a hurdle made more difficult by the advantages Calvert exercised by virtue of his 32-year incumbency.

By contrast, as a first-time candidate, “when you go from a job as a federal prosecutor, where it’s the antithesis of self-promotion, to suddenly needing to build an entire brand and raise your name I.D. and self promote and campaign, that’s a steep learning curve, and I had basically six months after a primary to do it,” Rollins said.

As November approaches, the presidential race is expected to even out the disparities in voter turnout, and by now Rollins has now spent nearly three years introducing his candidacy and his campaign to residents across CA-41.

For the first time in either cycle, Rollins was ahead of his opponent (by one point) in an internal poll last month that provided respondents with no additional information about the candidates, a sign that “more people are getting to know me, and our name I.D. is increasing, and more people are also hearing our message,” he said.

The Democratic hopeful also noted his campaign out-raised Calvert’s in the third consecutive quarter, Q1 2024, and by more than $1 million, thanks to “voters and our grassroots supporters [who] know that this seat is primed to flip.”

The DCCC seems to agree with their assessment. As one of the organization’s “Red to Blue” candidates, a highly competitive distinction awarded to those with the best odds of unseating Republicans in their districts, Rollins receives “strategic guidance, staff resources, training, and fundraising support” to ensure the best possible odds for his victory in November.

Additional help from the organization responsible for fundraising and organizing on behalf of Democratic House candidates could be decisive in a race as close as this one, but Rollins also stressed his appeal among center and center-right constituents.

Building coalitions in a purple district

For example, the campaign recently secured high-profile endorsements from the likes of Stan Sniff, retired Republican sheriff of Riverside County, and California State Assemblymember Chad Mays, who previously served as the elected Republican leader.

Additionally, last month, the Palm Springs Police Officers Association, which had supported Calvert in 2022, announced it would back Rollins this year. Asked how he managed to win over the organization, Rollins pointed to his ability to relate to law enforcement officers along with his tenacious approach to engaging with the group.

“For cops in Riverside County, having somebody represent them who has worked alongside them, prosecuting MS-13, the Sinaloa Cartel, murderers, rapists, terrorists, that’s really powerful for the line officers who want somebody that understands what it is like every single day to do an important job that they do, putting their lives on the line to keep us safe,” he said.

Rollins added that he was now cowed by the group’s endorsement of his opponent during the midterms and was persistent in reaching out to facilitate a dialogue. “I refuse to give up on trying to persuade people that I would do a better job of representing them in Congress than Ken Calvert,” as well as his ability to relate to law enforcement officers.

The campaign’s efforts to engage with the Log Cabin Republicans, the conservative LGBTQ group, were less successful. Rollins said that during both election cycles “we reached out to [chapters located in CA-41] repeatedly, and all of our outreach was ignored.”

It is easy to imagine areas in which the organization could find common ground with the Democratic candidate. Rollins would be the first LGBTQ member of Congress with a law enforcement background, a candidate who has worked for a Republican governor and deliberately engaged with and courted support from other individuals and groups that are right-of-center.

He also questioned why conservative LGBT Californians would ally themselves with his opponent. “What is Ken Calvert done for you? He’s voted against the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act. He’s voted against letting you serve in the military. It makes no sense to go out and support somebody like that.”

Rollins said it seems Log Cabin “is increasingly used by elected Republicans to try to maintain the appearance of support and to conceal some of their actual record on our rights” and their refusal to engage with him is likely a sign of the extent to which the GOP has become mired in partisanship.

Drawing the contrast

Rollins attributes much of his success in winning major endorsements and contributions to the many contrasts voters are seeing between his campaign and his opponent’s, perhaps starting with the professional backgrounds and records on which they are running.

In recent months, Calvert’s campaign has sought to portray Rollins as “soft on crime” because of his opposition to a criminal justice initiative, California’s Proposition 47, but the former prosecutor told the Blade he welcomes the chance to frame their race around these issues.

Rollins pointed out that while his career was spent “going after drug cartels, terrorists and violent criminals across southern California,” Calvert “is somebody who has voted to defund the FBI, who voted to defund Border Patrol, who said that the FBI has been infiltrated, [that] the Department of Justice has become a political weaponization tool,” and “called for dropping charges against people who assaulted the U.S. Capitol” on Jan. 6.

Further undermining Calvert’s effort to position himself as the “law and order” candidate is the encounter he had with police who found him consorting with a sex worker shortly into his first term in Congress, Rollins said.

He added the incident also shows the hypocrisy of his opponent’s legislative record, considering the Republican’s habit of “voting to get the government into our bedrooms and into our exam rooms, and to prevent gay people from getting married, from serving in the military.”

Rollins, who has prosecuted cases involving white collar crime, also accused his rival of exploiting “a system of legalized corruption” in Congress through which members from both parties have been allowed to exploit the powers and privileges of their office for personal financial gain with loopholes and loose oversight protecting them from consequences.

Specifically, he said Calvert has enriched himself to the tune of $20 million over his 17 terms in office “by using earmarks to benefit his own personal real estate investments,” Rollins said, “a form of insider trading in real estate.”

Rollins said that his opponent has earned a reputation for self-dealing and topped lists of the most corrupt members of Congress, with California’s 41st District taking notice. “When people have seen their own rent and gas and groceries skyrocket while their member of Congress makes $20 million since 1992, that is a major red flag for voters,” he said.

The corruption problem is bigger than Calvert, which is why Rollins said he has made reforms and policy solutions in this area a cornerstone of his campaign.

If elected, the Democrat said he will push for “a ban on members trading stock across the board” as well as “a ban on [members] using inside information to benefit their real estate investments” and “a ban on lobbying by former members of Congress.”

Rollins said he will also work to implement term limits for members of Congress and to fix the problems created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ruling in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), which allowed for unlimited spending by corporations and outside groups on political campaigns.

He said that even more modest reforms like establishing “disclosure rules for members” would go a long way toward mitigating concerns about the flow of dark money “into these competitive congressional races through independent expenditures.”

Each of these proposals “have been tied into our own theme of the campaign around public service and protecting our communities, and law enforcement service versus self-enrichment, self-dealing,” Rollins said. “There’s no movement to police ourselves, and yet that is what the public craves most,” he added.

Polls have long shown the overwhelming popularity of measures designed to improve the functioning of Congress along with mechanisms requiring more accountability and transparency from its members, which should perhaps come as little surprise considering that 66.7 percent of Americans disapprove of the institution according to FiveThirtyEight.

Rollins said audiences from across the political spectrum have responded enthusiastically whenever he has discussed his anti-corruption proposals, whether before a chamber of commerce or a meeting of the Stonewall Democratic Club.

Generally speaking, rather than “angertainment and click-bait politics,” most Americans want to see policy solutions aimed at addressing real problems, he said. “They want money out of politics. They want common sense solutions to traffic problems in their district. They want safer streets. They want clean energy. They want term limits.”

Likewise with their elected representatives, Rollins said. Voters “want people in the middle, not necessarily on the far left or the far right,” especially in purple districts where “you can run a successful campaign just being on what I call ‘team normal.'”

“The challenge for Democrats,” particularly those running for competitive seats, “is to make it really clear that the current MAGA majority [in the House] is different from the moderate, regular Republican voters in your district,” Rollins said.

Democrats should embrace populism

One way to reassure conservative-leaning voters is for Democrats to talk openly about the problems that helped facilitate the ascent of Donald Trump and the rise of right-wing populist movements, Rollins said.

Americans, regardless of their politics, are right when they say “government is broken,” or “The system is corrupt,” but solutions are not going to come from elected Republicans, least of all “the former host of Celebrity Apprentice,” Rollins said.

The more Democrats elected to the House who “are focused on those reforms, the better the party will do,” he said. “Because our brand can become an anti-corruption brand, and we should try to to cultivate that as much as possible, because certainly the GOP isn’t about that right now.”

Rollins added, “Right now, there’s only one political party that cares about getting money out of politics,” meaning that Democrats have the opportunity to campaign on an issue that “is supported by 90 percent of Americans.”

When it comes to more divisive matters, “a lot of it is tied to kitchen table issues, and I think that’s where we as a party are our strongest, where we’re talking about how it affects your wallet and why the far-right’s focus on culture wars is actually a massive waste of your tax dollars,” Rollins said.

Of course, it is important to call out the ways in which women, LGBTQ communities, and other groups are harmed when elected Republicans endeavor to restrict their rights, freedoms, and protections, but there is also an opportunity to explain why all Americans suffer as a result, he said.

For instance, after noting that Calvert and Congressional Republicans support “a national [abortion] ban with no exceptions,” along with restrictions on access to the abortion medication mifepristone and measures to make it more difficult for women in the military to access reproductive healthcare, Rollins stressed how these moves could damage the economy and threaten national security.

Likewise with LGBTQ rights. “I would be remiss if I didn’t also state the obvious,” Rollins said, “which is Calvert has one of the most horrible anti-LGBTQ rights voting records of any member in Congress, and started his political career by outing Mark Takano,” the gay congressman who ran against him in 1992 and now represents California’s 39th Congressional District.

Rollins said that when the subject comes up on the campaign trail, “I also talk about the way that his votes don’t just impact the LGBTQ community, because obviously they have hurt our community over the years, but they’ve actually hurt every American.”

For instance, he said, “when you try to make it harder for openly gay people to serve in the U.S. military, you deprive us of qualified pilots, snipers, Marines, Navy SEALs, Arabic linguists,” thereby weakening America’s military and security interests.

Rollins also noted the widely reported story last year about pediatric cardiologist Jake Kleinmahon, who ultimately decided to relocate out of Louisiana with his husband and daughter when conservative state lawmakers in Baton Rouge advanced a slate of anti-LGBTQ bills last year.

Following the family’s move to Long Island, Kleinmahon told CNN the only two remaining physicians in Louisiana who manage heart transplants would be expected to serve the same number of patients as they did before his departure.

“That is going to affect care,” he said, adding that “the absolute hardest part is me saying goodbye to my patients.”

“I believe the kids in Louisiana should have the same world class health care as any other part of the United States.”

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Congress

Garcia slams effort to ban drag shows as GOP passes NDAA with anti-LGBTQ riders

Equality Caucus denounces anti-LGBTQ amendments

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U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) during the debate on Thursday over the National Defense Authorization Act (Screen capture via C-Span)

U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) slammed Republican U.S. Rep. Josh Brecheen’s (Okla.) effort to ban drag shows on American military bases during a debate over the annual National Defense Authorization Act spending bill on Thursday.

The appropriations package, which contains five anti-LGBTQ riders pushed by House GOP members, was passed on Friday.

“We know there are a lot of threats to the health and well-being of our service members and their families: poisoned water, toxic mold in military housing, PTSD, and suicide,” said Garcia, who is gay and a co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus.

“So I’m stunned to see that the Republican idea to protect our troops is to ban drag shows,” he said. “Mr. Speaker, my Republican colleagues want us to believe that ‘these gays are trying to murder us.’ They want us to believe that drag is harmful, or immoral and wrong. This is ridiculous.”

“We can document and celebrate drag shows on military bases since the late 1800s, and through both world wars,” Garcia continued. “The USO and the Red Cross supported drag during World War II. That’s right: the Army that defeated Hitler and saved the world included drag queens.” 

“Ronald Regan starred in a movie called ‘This Is the Army!’ — a movie about World War II that featured four drag performances,” he said. “And he’s not the only Republican president who knew that drag can be fun and sometimes silly.”

Garcia displayed a photo of former president and presumptive 2024 GOP nominee Donald Trump alongside former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was dressed in drag.

“Mr. Speaker,” the congressman said, “drag is Art. Drag is Culture. Drag is Creativity. Drag is Comedy. And no, drag is Not a Crime. It’s not pornography. The real obscenity is when one of our colleagues, the gentlewoman from Georgia, shows literal posters of revenge porn in our Oversight Committee! If we want to end porn in government facilities, let’s ban that.”

In a statement on Friday, the Equality Caucus called out House Republicans’ politicization of the military appropriations bill.

“Like last year, House Republicans voted to add poison pill, anti-LGBTQI+ provisions to the NDAA that discriminate against our LGTBQI+ servicemembers and their families,” said Caucus Chair U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) “The Equality Caucus remains committed to preventing these discriminatory provisions from becoming law.”

Along with Brecheen’s drag show ban, the caucus highlighted four of these riders from this year’s NDAA:

  • Amendment 46 by U.S. Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.), which would “prohibit funds for the Department of Defense Education Activity from being used to purchase, maintain, or display in a school library or classroom books that include transgender and intersex characters or touch on topics related to gender identity or variations in sex characteristics,”
  • Amendment 49 by U.S. Rep. Cory Mills (R-Fla.), which would “ban Pride flags from any workplace, common access area, or public area of the Department of Defense,” and
  • Amendments 52 and 53 by U.S. Reps. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) and Ralph Norman (S.C.), which would, respectively, “ban TRICARE from covering and furnishing gender-affirming surgeries and hormone treatments,” and “prohibit the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) from covering or providing referrals for “gender transition procedures”—including puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and surgeries—for servicemembers’ dependent minor children.”
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Congress

Merkley, joined by Advocates for Trans Equality, makes Equality Act push

Ore. senator said ‘our rights and freedoms are on the ballot this year’

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U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) speaks at the Senate Swamp on Tuesday. (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) called for passage of the Equality Act during a press conference on Wednesday alongside Advocates for Trans Equality, who were convened on Capitol Hill for the Trans Day of Empowerment lobby day.

Instead of freedom and the opportunity to participate fully in society, the senator said, “We see hatred, we see harassment, we see homelessness, we see discrimination, and bigotry, and violence, we see unemployment, we even see state-sanctioned attempts to outlaw the very identity of our transgender members of our community.”

“Across America in 2024, in our state legislatures there have been 500 bills drafted to constrain the opportunity for transgender Americans,” Merkley said. “They take on school curriculum, or they ban gender affirming care or otherwise seek to constrain the opportunity to participate in society, by our transgender individuals, in so many different ways.”

“This is wrong,” he said. “This is unacceptable. And we need to therefore pass the Equality Act here in the halls of Congress.”

Merkley, who introduced the latest iteration of the bill in the Senate, noted the legislation would “end discrimination on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, in housing, in public accommodations, in mortgages, in financial transactions, in jury duty — every facet of American society.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who is gay and a co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, is leading the House version of the bill.

However, Merkley said, “our partners on the right side of the aisle have abandoned us. So, the responsibility to pass the Equality Act falls firmly on the Democratic Party.”

The senator called for an end to the Senate filibuster as a means of passing important legislation like the Equality Act.

Separately, in a statement to the Washington Blade, Merkley said, “Voting is the heart of our democracy. As Americans cast their ballots this fall, they have the chance to decide major issues facing our nation — from LGBTQ+ rights to reproductive freedom to so much more.”

“Democracy doesn’t exist unless every eligible voter has equal opportunity to make their voice heard,” he said. “As attacks on our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors continue in the halls of Congress, state legislatures, and in our communities, we must all speak out and vote against this rising hate.”

The senator added, “Our rights and freedoms are on the ballot this year, and I won’t stop fighting until every American can live safely and freely as their authentic self.”

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