The late State Rep. Barbara Cooper

By Tony Jones

MEMPHIS, TN — It’s down to the wire for the eleven candidates in the special primary election scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 24th that will decide who will replace the late State Rep. Barbara Cooper and become the new voice for District 86 in the Tennessee General Assembly.

Cooper passed away on Oct. 25, 2022 after serving 26 years representing the district, whose final configuration after 2021 gerrymandering included Millington, Northhaven, part of downtown and the southern tip of the city aligned along and adjacent to Third street. 

District 86 landmarks such as the Southgate Shopping Center, T. O Fuller State Park and Boxtown became vitally familiar after battles fought by residents there led to the successful 2022 fight to kill the Byhalia Connection Oil Pipeline that many said endangered the city’s and the immediate region’s water supply. 

Interest in the importance of civic engagement in D86 may have been high then, but early voting totals so far have been scant. The Shelby County Election Commission’s convenient daily updates have certainly kept the media, public and potential voters informed, but despite the number of candidates vying to drum up support, the highest trickle of voters has been at the Riverside Baptist Church. Long the key precinct for the district, of the 869 early voters counted by press time, 575 of those had been cast there. Early voting concludes Thursday, Jan. 19. Election Day is Tuesday, Jan. 24th.

A minor change has been made for election day. Water damage at the New Vision Preparatory Charter School at 260 Joubirt Avenue, led to a change that was approved in a special meeting held on Tuesday, Jan. 17th to approve the new location, the Oak Grove MBC at 183 Joubert Ave. 

SCEC’s Administrator of Election Linda Phillips explained, “Recently, we received notice that the building at one of our polling locations had extreme water damage. State law requires the Election Commission to approve polling locations.”

The low turnout points to a potential old-fashioned beat the bushes campaign that should start boiling just as we go to press. An expensive blitz advertising campaign or smart surprise candidate maneuver could still lead to a last minute voter response that could make it a real nail biter. 

Seasoned political historian Dell Gill says, “I think it’s going to be close, right between 25 to 50 votes. The fight will be among the homeowners that have been living in their homes for more than 20 years, at the Riverside poll. That’s what the numbers will prove.” 

All of the candidates laid their cases out at a Walker Homes West Junction Community Forum held on Thursday, Jan. 12th, co-sponsored by the Southwest R.R.I.S.E. team (Rebulding Resilient Individuals for a Successful Environment) and Walker Homes CDC. Team member Kathy Robinson reported about 80 citizens showed up, which was “extremely satisfying. All of the candidates seemed to be well prepared for the forum. It was encouraging to know that each candidate in attendance took our invitation seriously.” How that enthusiasm will translate on election day will decide District 86’s immediate and potentially long term future. 

And there is one real wild card that could potentially swing voters at the 11th hour. Rep. Cooper was known for organizing strong community advocate groups, but she was also a true believer in American democratic principles and practices. Several years before her death she had created, developed and partnered with Westwood Neighborhood Association President David Page, inventing the Tennessee Voter Connection to promote and spur voter participation by providing an online tool providing consistent voter research. Launched in 2021, several thousand voters have been added to the site’s database. At press time Page said the group has not issued an endorsement.