The late State Rep. Barbara Cooper

By Tony Jones 

Tony Jones

The original article of this series stated that Will Richardson lost to Rep Barbara Cooper in the Nov. 8th, 2022 election. The correct date of his loss was the August 4th election. 

The correction comes on the heels of the daily updates by the Shelby County Election Commission (SCEC) confirming that Rebecca Robinson and Andrew Withers have now pulled petitions for the D86 seat, bringing the candidate list to 9 as of Friday, Dec. 9. Cooper held the seat for 26 years, becoming a legend of civic service in her time. 

As of Friday, Dec. 4th, the two latest entries join Cooper’s daughter and campaign manager Tanya Cooper, former County Commissioner Julian Bolton, community activist Clifford Lewis, Richardson, Juliette Eskridge, Dominique Frost and Joann Wooten Lewis. Bolton and Lewis have been approved, having gathered the required signatures to run. A ground swell of excitement about 26 years old Justin J. Pearson, who forged a movement to stave off a major oil pipeline slated to run through his Memphis community. His supporters hope he joins Nashville’s 27 year old Justin Jones who is a new generation of Nashville young political leaders who are better organized and educated to fight for the at large communities in the State Legislature. 

Gov. Bill Lee ordered the special election following Cooper’s passing on Tuesday, Oct. 25th, She was 93 at the time of her death and was honored in April by the entire General Assembly as the oldest actively serving legislator in state history. Before hundreds of attendees, Lee attended and spoke fondly of her at the funeral service Saturday, Nov. 5th at the St. Augustine Catholic Church memorializing her life and service to the state. 

Available on the commission’s website, the qualification deadline for the primary is Thursday, Dec. 15th, at noon. Candidates who have qualified must be certified by the commission members at a meeting following the deadline, tentatively set at 4 p.m. that evening. Commissioners will also approve the budget for the election, establish early voting locations, and the final schedule. The last day to withdraw will be Monday, Dec. 19th, at noon. Voters will make the final decision on Tuesday, March 14th. Administrator of Elections Linda Phillips says the estimated cost of both the primary and the general election is $500,000. The state will reimburse Shelby County for the cost. 

Several confidential sources behind the scenes indicate that the contest for “Cooper’s seat” may become an old-fashioned nail-biter as political lines of communication have long been buzzing with many names rumored to be seriously considering throwing their hat into the ring. We will refrain from listing names until official petitions have been filed. 

Many interesting factors make the D86 special election seriously interesting. Top of mind would be the sentimental vote tied to her legacy. Barbara Cooper was the epitome of what an elected official should be. Indeed, she was regularly referred to as the last of the civil rights warriors due to her clear-cut grassroots priorities. Behind the scenes, there had already been some downright filthy maneuverings trying to push her out, even in the state capital offices. But no matter how buffoonish, she publicly ignored them and kept producing real tangible results for her district and, as fate would have it, for the entire mid-south region, including Mississippi. 

One of those could become a litmus test for hopeful replacements, the watershed Byhalia Connection Pipeline protest series that successfully preserved the city’s water supply. The wellhead that led to that pivotal movement sprang from the needs of apparently cornered residents in the Boxtown and Westwood neighborhoods in the southern tip of her district. Cooper arranged a town hall meeting at Mitchell High School, germinating the protests. It is a fair question to ask any candidate what real value did they bring to the table when Boxtown and Westwood needed them, which even drew former Vice President Al Gore in support.  

Another strong initiative she put forth is the Tennessee Voter Connection (TVC), a website tool to assist voters. Brainstormed by Cooper, the site was built and maintained by co-creator David Page, a member of Cooper’s support group, the One Voice Community Coalition (OVCC), Memphis City Schools teacher, and Westwood Neighborhood Association President. TVC has met to discuss a potential candidate forum dedicated to Cooper’s legacy. We have learned at press time that the site administrator Page will release a billboard to refresh D86 voters with the site. Intended to strengthen voter involvement, it could become the crucial posting of the special election. It is available here:

But an additional fact will surely have resonance in the best thought out strategies. While Cooper’s legacy is expected to generate a powerful sympathy vote tied to her legacy, D86 extended from Millington to Coro Lake at the edge of the state’s border with Mississippi and it includes downtown. Cooper was just as diligent in trying to servicing constituents and addressing issues in these areas as well, from business interests to fighting for fair consideration of African American interests, her core concern. Which candidate will ultimately have goals to present that will actually be a benefit for the district? It will be up to the voters to make the decision.

(Disclosure: This reporter was a member of OVCC, and co-wrote Rep. Cooper’s obituary with her daughter Rev. Joan Burnett and has advised or consulted with several of the potential candidates considering running. Once candidacy is confirmed, all statements will be considered a matter of record. As the old journalism axiom states, there are no friends on the front page.)

Tony Jones is a freelance writer, independent publicist and recently established filmmaker in Memphis.