NASHVILLE, TN – Every Friday you will find Kristen Grimm outside Representative Jim Cooper’s office holding a pink sign. Grimm is founder of Mothers for Medicare for All. She has a son with a chronic health condition and spends a lot of time arguing with his insurance company about a surgery they refused to pay for.
“We have a new bill rolling over in Congress, HR 1976. He (Cooper) did not sign on to HR 1384. He did sign on in 2017 to Medicare for All legislation. He’s waffling on healthcare. We need our legislators, our leaders in this country, to not waffle on anything in regards to healthcare. We need comprehensive healthcare reform,” Grimm said.
Grimm would know. She is plagued by debt collectors for unpaid medical bills from her son’s care at a children’s hospital. She spoke to a small crowd of regulars last week from a coalition of progressive groups like Veterans For Peace (VFP), the Peace and Justice Center, Our Revolution, and MoveOn.org.
“I hope he comes today and we can talk to him,” said Jane Hussain, a veteran activist with Nashville Peace & Justice Center.
Tom Grose is a member of Veterans For Peace (VFP). The Nashville branch has a petition calling on Cooper to take a stand on a myriad of issues including Medicare for All, a Green New deal, ending college debt and corporate welfare.
“I would say our top three (priorities) are supporting a living minimum wage, the next thing would be some type of justice reform. I guess the third thing for veterans would certainly be saving the VA, make sure it doesn’t get privatized like they’ve been trying to do for the last ten years,” Grose said.
He said that a lot of VA hospitals have closed and so more and more vets go to private healthcare providers.
“They’re not funding the VA in terms of staffing. That’s been the on-going problem for over 20 years now. They have over 50,000 medical positions that have never been filled,” he said.
Vanderbilt serves veterans because of staffing issues that lead to long wait times at many VA hospitals, including the one in Nashville. The Veteran’s Administration runs the country’s only Medicare For All system, albeit only for vets. Grose said Congress has been starving it to death.
“A lot of veterans would be dead now if it wasn’t for the VA,” he said.
Cooper, a self-identified “Blue dog Democrat”, is one of two Tennessee Democrats in the House of Representatives. The other is Steve Cohen from Memphis, one of the most progressive members in Congress.
Cohen is unabashedly vocal and issues public statements like preachers quote the Bible. His constituents have reelected him six times. Cooper represented Tennessee’s 4th District from 1983-1995. He was reelected to that seat five times. He won the 5th District seat in 2002 when Bob Clement decided to run for U.S. Senate and Cooper has represented the 5th District ever since.
On Monday, Justice Democrats, the progressive group that launched Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful bid to unseat Rep. Joe Crowley in 2018, endorsed Nashville activist Odessa Kelly. She is making a Democratic primary challenge to Cooper in the 2022 midterm elections.
The 5th District includes Davidson, Cheatham and Dickson counties. Cheatham and Dickson voters are mostly Republican and went for Trump by wide margins in both 2016 and 2020. Cooper’s moderate voting record reflects that constituency as well as a bipartisan approach to law-making that his critics say is a throwback to a more civil time in Washington that is long gone.
Cooper would likely agree with them. He has been highly critical of Congress in the past. In 2010, he called it “a Farm League for K Street”. He was referring to politicians who leave public service to become lobbyists for special interests. He does not like earmarks, a common practice in Washington, whereby politicians pay back their campaign donors by inserting earmarks into appropriation bills so they can feed at the public trough.
Cooper’s personal opinions influence how he votes. For example, he voted against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House four times. He may be old-fashioned but he is a savvy politician—not a firebrand but more a team player. He twice voted to impeach Donald Trump and voted with other Democrats to pass the American Rescue Act of 2021.
The people who gather outside his office on Fridays want Cooper to support what they call “A People’s Agenda”. The majority of Americans support things like Medicare for All, closing down Guantanamo, and rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement. Tennessee progressives hope the old blue dog will learn a few new tricks and bring their progressive agenda to Washington.
Brenda Ross is chair of the Nashville and Middle Tennessee branch of Our Revolution. Her first priority is Medicare For All.
“We’ve been out here for several Fridays and have not been able to speak with him as of yet,” Ross said. Cooper’s office said Ross has not asked for meeting. Press reports have said Cooper is not leaning towards a universal health care bill that would create a single payer system.
What Has Rep. Jim Cooper Done for Nashville, Lately?
We asked Cooper to tell us what support he has provided for Nashville’s Black community, to describe what part he played in getting support for local restaurants and music venues in the American Rescue Plan, and if he has supported the creation of a John Lewis museum at the American Baptist College.
He did not respond by press time but released this statement April 9:
“Nashville and the African American community have already received, and will continue to receive, far more money and benefits than ever before in history. In fact, it’s many times more federal aid than ever before, and I have strongly supported all of it, both publicly and behind the scenes.”
His staff noted: “As for accessibility and accountability, no congressman in America is more accessible. Jim has given out his personal cell number for many years, unlike almost all of his colleagues. During COVID-19 especially, just give Jim a call at 615-714-1719.”
In December 2020, the House passed Cooper’s flood control bill that would speed up a study of Old Hickory Dam and Cordell Hull dam, both upstream from Nashville. Cooper also co-sponsored a bipartisan Taxpayers-Right-To-Know Act. The House passed it December 9. On March 22, 2021 Cooper announced $8 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Human Services to United Neighborhood Health Services, and the Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center in Nashville.
As part of the American Rescue Plan, Rep. Cohen (D-Memphis) recently announced $19.4 million in grants to three Shelby County health centers. Cohen announced a $5 million emergency relief grant to Shelby County’s HIV programs from the Department of Health and Human Services. On April 1, Cohen announced the University of Memphis and the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital had each received grants from the National Institutes of Health. Cohen is one of 70 members of the Medicare for All caucus in Congress, all Democrats.