In life, sometimes one must experience certain hardships to be a better advocate for those in similar situations. That is the story of Keeda Haynes who spent almost four years in prison for a crime she says she did not commit, to becoming a public defender who is now running for Congress in Tennessee.
Should Haynes win the seat against the incumbent Re, Jim Cooper who has been running the show in congress for the Democratic seat for almost two decades, she will be the first Black woman Tennessee will send to Congress.
Haynes has got some big shoes to fill and she believes she is worthy of the position because her district needs a change and believes they are ready for it. Cooper has been on the seat in the state’s 5th district for 17 years and about the time he began office in 2003, Haynes was beginning her seven-year-sentence in jail.
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When Haynes was 19, an older man she was dating at the time made her receive packages for his mobile phone and beeper business which was a front for his marijuana deals. She was then apprehended with a few others and they were later “indicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana.”
At the time she was acquitted of six charges but found guilty of one felony; ‘aiding and abetting the sale of marijuana.’ Just two weeks after graduating from Tennessee State University in 2003 with a degree in criminal justice and psychology, her parents drove her to prison to serve her sentence.
Her initial sentence dropped from seven to five after an appeal, but she ended up serving three years and 10 months behind bars. While in prison, Haynes continued to improve herself and studied for the LSAT while helping others in prison with their legal issues. This informed her decision to enroll in Nashville School of Law.
To make ends meet, Haynes took classes at night and worked during the day as a legal secretary for the lawyer, who defended her during her trial. In 2013, she began working at the public defender’s office for six years.
According to the Huffpost, Haynes believes her time in prison and her experience defending her fellow inmates caught up in the country’s racist criminal justice system is the embodiment of a great congresswoman and that is precisely what she would be.
It is been almost three decades since a Black person represented Tennessee in Congress and although Hayne’s district has a Black population totaling about 25% of the inhabitants of the district, they have never had a Black representative in Congress. The lack of representation, according to Haynes, is “really disappointing” and “very telling.”
“I am running because looking around I can see that people that look like me, that have the same issues I have, we were not being represented in this district.
“It’s important to have someone in Congress that can view the policy from the lens of being formerly incarcerated, as a woman, an African American, saddled with student loan debt, from a working class family,” Haynes said.
Cooper on the hand is a 66-year-old white male whose father was governor in the 1940s and whose brother is Nashville’s mayor. Haynes hopes to win the seat as she is running on a progressive platform that supports Medicare for All, affordable housing, raising minimum wage and criminal justice reform. She also participated in the recent nationwide protests to defund the police.
“Everything is connected: if people don’t have jobs, if people don’t have housing, if they’re living in neighborhoods that are overpoliced, there’s going to be this disparity,” Haynes said, speaking of racial disparities throughout the justice system, from police stops to sentencing.
“If you have police criminalizing the color of people’s skin, they’re going to end up in the criminal justice system.”
Haynes never thought she would find herself in politics or be regarded as an ex-convict either. She was raised in ‘a close-knit family in Franklin, Tennessee, about a 25-minute drive south of Nashville.’
“I never envisioned myself in politics,” Haynes said. “It wasn’t my plan for my life, but neither was going to prison, so here we are.”
The 5th district is a largely Democratic district and there is no Republican in the race for Congress. This means that whoever wins the seat in August has a one-way ticket to Congress in November.
As a senior legal advisor for Free Hearts, the non-profit that advocates for incarcerated people and their families. She hopes to “center the voices of people formerly incarcerated in Congress.”
Laws pertaining to the restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people must be well understood by the members of Congress who craft the legislation. She said, they “need to understand the impact these laws have on people’s lives.”
Haynes herself had her voting rights restored a few years after she got out of prison after her probation period ended. In addition to that, she had to petition a court earlier this year to restore some of her civil rights as well. This was essential to her political career as she would not be eligible to run for office on state or local level but only at the federal level.
“When talking about criminal justice reform, we get caught up in the numbers. We’re not numbers, we’re people, we have lives,” Haynes said.
“I am one of those numbers,” she added, reciting her inmate number from memory: 00017-011.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the dynamics of many things including elections. Tennessee like other states must go to the polls but thanks to a court ruling in June, all voters became eligible to submit ballots by mail.
This is a no mean race for Haynes but she still perseveres with major endorsements from progressive political groups like Democracy for America and Indivisible. Although she trails Cooper in the most recent fundraising numbers from June.
According to OpenSecrets, Haynes raised about $73,000 to Cooper’s $674,000 whereas Joshua Rawlings, a 27-year-old small business owner and former Republican also running for the seat has raised $17,000.
Fundraising matter, but to Haynes people now seek proper representation who can fight for what they the masses believe in.
“With Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd … people took notice, said, ‘Hey, we need to protest in the streets, but we also need to look at who is in office and determine if they represent who we are,’” Haynes said.