Keeda Haynes, a public defender from Tennessee, is one of the Democrats challenging incumbent Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who has been in office since 2003. And, as Haynes puts it, just as we are currently experiencing a shift in this country, and a shift in the conversations we’re having (particularly in light of the current racial tensions), we are also experiencing a shift in who we believe should be leading this country.
“I think that we deserve somebody who is going to be an actual leader, somebody who is going to show up early and not somebody who is going to just join the party once everybody else starts talking about it,” Haynes says to ESSENCE. “I think we’ve got to have somebody that is passionate about the issues that we are facing in our community and somebody that is going to stand up for the community.”
And that pretty much sums up why Haynes decided to run for office. She says in her experience, just talking to people in her community, many felt like there was not a voice representing them in the nation’s capital. As someone who personally knows “what it is like to be locked out, to be left behind, and to be silenced by a government that is supposed to actually work for you,” Haynes explains that she is here to step in.
“My inspiration is my community, and just recognizing that there was no one that was speaking on our behalf for us in Washington,” Haynes says. “[I want] to make sure…that I am standing beside members in the community and that I am amplifying their voices and that we are speaking as one.”
Haynes, 42, will face off against Cooper and another Democrat, Joshua Rawlings, 27 in the August 6 primary elections in Tennessee.
If elected, Haynes has her eye on many big issues, particularly reforming the criminal justice system, which has impacted her in several ways, not only as a public defender serving a community that has one of the highest incarceration rates, but also on a personal level.
One of the first issues she hopes to tackle is repealing mandatory minimum sentencing laws, something with which she is intimately acquainted.
Haynes herself served nearly four years in prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit while she was enrolled at Tennessee State University. She accepted a FedEx package for her boyfriend which ended up having a sizeable amount of marijuana and she was arrested. The case went to trial, and although Haynes was partially acquitted, she ended up being sentenced to prison time due to the quantity of marijuana.
After getting out of prison, she would go on to graduate from law school and become what she is today.
“When I talk about these things, I’m not talking about numbers that I’m reading on a piece of paper, or what somebody else told me. I am speaking from lived experiences my own, or my clients or other members in the community. And I think that that is how I am a representative of the community, because I am a part of the community, I’m active in the community,” Haynes says. “I ended up having to serve four years in prison for a crime that I did not commit and was subjected to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and just saw a lot of things when it comes to the criminal justice system, in my situation personally.”
Then there is of course her work as a public defender, which has led her to see people held behind bars just because they couldn’t afford to make bail, or the barriers to reentry into society that many face, or the struggle to get their voting rights reinstated if possible and other issues.
“Seeing firsthand the systemic racism that is ingrained within the criminal justice system really makes me want to continue to fight to dismantle it, but from a different angle now than what I did in my personal case, and also what I was able to do as a public defender,” she says.
Other big issues Haynes hopes to tackle include justice in healthcare, economics and with the environment and climate. Haynes understands that as much as Black lives matter when we talk about criminal justice reform and police brutality, Black lives also have to matter across all facets of American life.
“Back lives matter, but you know, Black lives doesn’t matter just when it comes to criminal justice reform, and just when it comes to police accountability. We’ve got to have leaders in office that understand that Black lives matter, across every single aspect,” Haynes insists. “So when we say Black lives matter, we mean that Black lives matter when it comes to criminal justice reform, when it comes to police accountability. Black lives matter when it comes to housing. Black lives matter when it comes to education. Black lives matter when it comes to healthcare, when it comes to jobs. Black lives matter in every single one of those areas. And like I said, we’ve got to have leaders in office that understand that. Because a lot of these laws, when it comes from redlining down to mass incarceration, have been codified.”
It all comes back, in one way or another, to bringing a fresh perspective to the table, and a leader who understands the pervasive nature of systemic racism in this country, in ways that have only been glaringly emphasized by the ongoing health crisis.
“The pandemic has really just exposed those things and added more resolve as to why it is we need somebody in Congress that understands the community [and] understands the issues that [the community is] facing,” she added. “[Someone who] is going to go to Washington, that is going to advocate for these issues, that is going to be a leader when it comes to these issues for the members in our community.”
“We have to understand that this is not about somebody replacing somebody else,” Haynes emphasized. “This is just about recognizing that who we have right now that is representing us, that they’re no longer a good fit for us where we are right now in history, in this moment.”