Ex-convict says she was wrongly accused, runs to be 1st black Congresswoman from Tennessee

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A former public defender who served jail time for a crime she said she did not commit is now running in the primary race for Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District.

If elected, Keeda Haynes will not only bring her “unique perspective” to the job, she would be the first black woman in Tennessee to be elected to Congress. The progressive Democrat is running against Democratic candidate Joshua Rawlings and Rep. Jim Cooper, the Democrat incumbent who has served in the position since 2003.

(Source: Keeda Haynes/YouTube)

Haynes hopes to represent the vulnerable in her district, which includes Nashville, if she lands the vote in the Aug. 6 primary election, which has no Republican running. Two black representatives have been elected from Tennessee, and the last one who served was elected to Congress more than 20 years ago. Haynes thinks it’s her time and plans to address issues such as raising the minimum wage, affordable housing and reducing loan debts for students.

“I have a unique perspective that a lot of people don’t have. … I’ve been a defendant and defender,” she told ABC News. “I really saw just how this war on drugs really decimated black and brown, low-income communities.”

Haynes was released from prison in 2006, having served three years and 10 months out of a seven-year mandatory minimum sentence. She maintained that she was innocent though she had been charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana.

It turned out that the packages she had been accepting for the stores owned by the Nashville man she had been dating when she was 19 years old actually contained marijuana, she told ABC News. Two weeks after she graduated from Tennessee State University with a degree in criminal justice and psychology, Haynes had to report to federal prison on the marijuana charges.

Following her release, she worked as a legal assistant for the attorney who represented her as she attended Nashville School of Law at night, graduating and becoming a practicing attorney in Nashville in 2012.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to have a private attorney and he was great,” she told CNBC. “Seeing how he was with me really set the bar for the type of lawyer I wanted to be as a public defender. And, I said I wanted to be able to give people the same level of representation that my attorney gave me, but I wanted to give it to the people who couldn’t afford to pay for it.”

She then worked over six years at Nashville’s public defender’s office.

“It was there,” she said, “at the public defender’s office, where I was talking with my clients and speaking with other people in the community, that I realized there were so many things going on in people’s lives that no one was doing anything about.”

The 42-year-old praised the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, who was buried this week after he passed away following a cancer battle.

“Even in the face of police violence, he still believed in something bigger and still fought for liberation. … I personally feel obligated to do this work in his name,” Haynes said.

She also believes determination and focus are keys to success.

“Prison did not deter me from doing what I said I was going to do,” she told ABC News. “There will be people that will tell you that you can’t do things and that things are impossible, but you have to stay focused.”

Haynes elaborated on her progressive goals if she is elected, focusing on the issues she feels have been neglected in her home state under Cooper’s tenure. She told CNBC she will be focusing on criminal justice reform if elected to Congress as well as on fixing the “health-care crisis.”

“People are having to make the necessary decisions about whether they’re going to be purchasing the medicine they need or whether they’re going to pay their mortgage or car payments,” she said. “Those are issues that I don’t think people should have to consider. I think health care is human rights and we need people in Congress who are going to act upon that.”

“I want to go to Congress and I want to look at all of these policies and procedures involved from the lens of being an African American, someone who’s been formerly incarcerated, someone who was a public defender and someone who’s an advocate,” she added. “I want to address the systemic racism we’re seeing not just in the criminal justice system, but across every aspect of our lives so that we can all experience the healing and justice that people are calling for in their communities.”

“Being the first anything doesn’t mean anything to me,” she said, responding to the idea that she could be making history if elected. “What I want people to remember me as is not just being the first African American female from this district, but being the first African American female from this district that went to Congress and got things done for people in this district because being the first means nothing if you’re not going to fulfill the duty of the position that you’re the first in.”


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