It was the kind of summer afternoon every D.C. resident is familiar with: lazy in the sense that the air isn’t inclined to move, even under the whirring fan of a neighborhood bar; sweat pools at the backs of your knees if you sit down long enough.
When Kelly recently stepped into As You Are, a queer bar in Southeast D.C., she cut a cool, confident and very tall figure, wearing a white polka-dot blazer over a white T-shirt, skinny blue jeans and white loafers. And crowning her long locs was a massive pair of black headphones, from which she’d been playing Kendrick Lamar and Pusha T.
Since declaring her candidacy for Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District, the former college basketball player, public servant, activist and mother of two has been thinking a lot about how to best present herself.
“As an openly gay Black woman, 6-foot-tall, you know, masculine-leaning, I want to make sure I show up well,” said Kelly, 40.
If elected in November, Kelly would make history on multiple fronts: She would be the first Black woman to represent Tennessee and the first openly gay Black woman to be elected to Congress, ever. (This could be true of three other candidates this year: Aisha Mills and Queen Johnson in New York and Kimberly Walker in Florida, according to the LGBTQ political advocacy group Victory Fund.)
It’s the kind of history Kelly says her hometown of Nashville is ready to make. But to get there, Kelly not only has to defeat a well-established Republican incumbent but also has to win a redrawn district that voting rights advocates have called among the most gerrymandered in the country.
It is a battle emblematic of the South’s political tensions: Liberal urban areas that are quickly growing, diversifying and gaining political influence vs. a powerful conservative infrastructure that has been able to maintain its power, in part, by redrawing electoral maps and increasing voter restrictions.
If Kelly is sweating the odds, she isn’t showing it. Her background has only increased her willingness to fight despite the challenges.
“Running up the hill might be hard,” Kelly said of her chances. “You just prep to run up the hill harder.”
Even under the best of circumstances, Kelly would have been an outside shot to win a congressional seat. When Kelly announced her candidacy last year, she was slated to represent Tennessee’s 5th District, an area that encompasses all of Nashville — a Democratic stronghold in the state for nearly 150 years. She had expected to face a tough primary against longtime Rep. Jim Cooper (D).
But that was before the Tennessee state legislature drew a new election map, which was approved this year. It slices the city of Nashville, home to fewer than 700,000 people, into three parts, dividing one of the few Democratic districts in the state into three conservative-leaning ones.
Kelly is now the sole Democrat running to represent what has become the 7th Congressional District, which extends from the Kentucky border through the state’s center and down to the edge of Alabama.
During a midterm election in which the Democratic majority in Congress balances on a razor’s edge, splitting a solid Democratic district into three Republican seats would not only diminish the voting power of Nashville, one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, but also could help shift power back to House Republicans by the end of the year.
State Republicans have denied that the new district lines are gerrymandered.
“The recommended maps are fair and legal, disturb no currently serving legislator and preserve, as much as possible, current district composition,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R) said in January, Nashville’s WKRN TV reported.
But Democrats and voting rights advocates have called the redistricting a brazen attempt to dilute Black political power in the state.
In January, Cooper told the Tennessean: “Gerrymandering is an extinction event for the political life of Nashville.” Cooper has represented the city for nearly 20 years, but after the new map was released, he opted not to run for reelection.
“Nashville has no representation anymore,” said Allison Anoll, assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. Instead, the new districts — which affect 2.5 million Tennesseans, according to Anoll — mean that Nashville’s residents must compete for attention and resources with counties that have vastly different populations and interests.
Sekou Franklin, a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University, framed the impact this way: Future lawmakers “don’t have to step foot in Nashville to govern.”
That would be “devastating” for the entire city, but it would effectively silence Black Nashville residents, Franklin added. Republicans could campaign on wedge issues that have appealed to conservative, White voters and still “win” Black communities.
Kelly won’t let that happen, she said.
A homegrown activist, Kelly prides herself on her roots in East Nashville — a historically Black part of the city. But her 14-year stint as a public servant began with “some shady stuff” her father pulled on her, Kelly said.
“I’m right out of college, waiting for the WNBA to call me so I can go hoop, living off of credit cards,” Kelly recalled. On her 23rd birthday, her dad gave her a box wrapped with a big bow. But when she opened it, she found nothing but a pair of scissors — “for me to cut up my credit cards” — and a job application.
For Kelly, it was a wake-up call to start the next phase of her life. Her dad had suggestions: She was great with people, why not work at her local community center?
She fell in love with the work at Napier Community Center, Kelly said. She spent time with the neighborhood’s senior citizens, from whom she learned how to play piano and Cutthroat Spades. In the afternoons, the center became a hub for the neighborhood’s youth.
“I could have retired doing that job,” Kelly said. But after 14 years, two kids and climbing her way up to management, Kelly found she was still living paycheck to paycheck.
She was also witnessing the kind of systemic problems that felt beyond her ability to control as a community center worker, she said: entrenched poverty, over-policing, gun violence. In 2015, Kelly began working in advocacy, going to community and activist meetings and speaking up about the problems she was seeing.
She got especially interested in labor issues and co-founded the advocacy coalition Stand Up Nashville in 2016. She has since been credited with a couple of big labor wins, including a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that would guarantee the city’s new Major League Soccer stadium would come with substantial community investments.
Like other liberal candidates, Kelly is campaigning on expanding affordable housing, Medicare-for-all, LGBTQ rights and building the kind of green-energy infrastructure that advocates say would help reverse climate change.
But it’s her approach that may make her stand out. Kelly often cusses up a storm, sandwiched with the kind of talk familiar to D.C. policy wonks: procurement policies, labor contracts, infrastructure. She hopes to normalize those kinds of conversations among constituents, she said: “A lot of time, we have bad politicians because we don’t know what to expect from them. So we don’t have an accurate measuring stick.”
She faces substantial challenges outside of Tennessee’s electoral maps. She has raised more than $700,000 — more than the preceding Democratic candidates combined, according to her campaign — but her Republican opponent, Rep. Mark Green, has reportedly raised more than $1.3 million for this election cycle.
She also has to do what Green doesn’t need to: pull together a broad, multiracial coalition and turn out the vote at high levels, Franklin said.
Mobilizing these voters is tough during a midterm election, but Kelly is facing another head wind. Enthusiasm for Democrats seems to have waned nationally and in the state, Franklin added.
Kelly said she believes, with sustained organizing, Tennessee could follow in Georgia’s footsteps in 2020 — when a decade of Democratic mobilizing efforts paid off with two Senate seats and a win for President Biden.
But Franklin is skeptical: In terms of a unified Democratic infrastructure, the state has “a long way to go” before it could catch up with Georgia. Georgia also has among the highest rates of Black voters — the cornerstone of the Democratic base in the South.
Despite the odds, though, experts say Kelly’s campaign isn’t a fool’s errand: In a storied city in danger of losing its political voice, it’s important for marginalized voters to see candidates fighting for them.
“It’s always important to have challengers, to have a race that shows differences in candidates. That’s part of what we think makes a democracy a democracy,” said Anoll, of Vanderbilt. She also said Kelly’s run could fuel the kind of organizing push needed to help Democrats win back representation in the state.
Franklin sees an important symbolic message in Kelly’s campaign. As a queer, progressive Black woman, Kelly represents a version of the American South that has always been present but overlooked.
“Even with all the racial terrorism that existed historically in Tennessee, we have the alternative history, or the more complicated history, of resistance,” he added.
For her part, Kelly is not only game for the challenge, she said she’s confident in her chances. She hopes her teen daughter, who is touring colleges campuses, will go to Howard University — not just because it’s a historically Black college but also because Kelly wants her close by if she’s elected.
And she expects to be out on the basketball court, too.
“I can’t wait to get to Congress and dunk on Ted Cruz and any other Republican who thinks they’re a baller,” Kelly said. “And I will take anybody on my team. Congresswoman [Maxine] Waters, I’ll take her. I’m taking all the OGs. We’re going to go out there and ball on people.”
“Give me the ball. I’m open,” Kelly continues. “I cannot wait.”