Tennessee’s oldest-ever lawmaker faces much younger challenger

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 01, 2022 4:00 AM CT | Published: August 01, 2022 4:00 AM CT

One of the oldest state lawmakers in the country is facing a much-younger challenger in the Democratic primary for a state House seat.

Longtime state Rep. Barbara Cooper (D-Memphis), who turns 93 on Aug. 4 — primary election day — says constituent services are what distinguish her as Democrats struggle to pass bills in the Republican-dominated Tennessee General Assembly.

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“I’m kind of known for picking up the phone and getting back to people,” she told The Daily Memphian.

Her challenger, Will Richardson, a 45-year-old business owner, hopes to win over younger voters, arguing that the district needs more energetic representation in Nashville.

“She’s done a great job. … I’ve voted for her numerous times,” he said in an interview. “(But) people are looking for something and want to try something different.”

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The district spans the entire length of the Mississippi River in Shelby County, from North Horn Lake and Westwood High School, through Downtown and up to the Tipton County line and part of Millington.

Cooper isn’t Memphis’ only incumbent state House Democrat facing a primary, but Richardson’s fundraising has been stronger than other challengers, who either reported having no cash or very little. The winner of the Democratic primary is all but guaranteed to win the general election; an independent is on the ballot, but he reported raising no money

‘A changing of the guard’

Much like the Republican primary race between Lee Mills and state Rep. Tom Leatherwood (R-Arlington), the two Democrats aren’t offering major policy differences.

The challenger in both races is attempting to paint the incumbent as lacking energy and as ineffective or past their prime.

Richardson, who says he would be “right down the middle” of the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party, says his campaign represents “a changing of the guard.”

“We need a representative that’s visible and accountable,” he said.

‘It’s not about policy, it’s about personality and effectiveness’

He ran unsuccessfully for Memphis City Council in 2019. He owns an in-home health care company, WR Community Services, and a bar, Fat Charlie’s Speakeasy.

His campaign is largely self-funded. He loaned himself $21,156, but reported spending $5,843 in the six months covered by his past two disclosures. His ending balance as of July 19 was $24,102.

If he wins, Richardson said he would try to build relationships with Republicans in order to “find common ground that benefits everyone.”

He said he wants to expand opportunities for jobs and entrepreneurship, bring more education funding to West Tennessee and lessen the burden of standardized testing on students and teachers.

Some of Richardson’s priorities will be nonstarters with the supermajority. He said he wants to expand Medicaid and pass gun-safety laws, rolling back the permitless carry law. He also said he opposed the “truth in sentencing” law.

“We gotta get away from … having the same people in office expecting different outcomes,” he said.

‘When they call me, I show interest’

Cooper, who has held the seat since the mid-1990s — when Democrats held the majority in the state legislature — has easily handled primary elections in the past.

In next year’s legislative session, Cooper — who spent a career as a teacher before a second act as a politician — wants to pass legislation to further expand internet access to low-income Memphians and expand classroom instruction on conflict resolution.

She won the primary with 66.3% of the vote in 2020. The second-place candidate got 26%. In 2018, she won 78% of the primary vote.

Cooper has spent far more money on her campaign. She reported spending $16,160 in the second quarter of reporting, landing at $6,517 on hand. She loaned herself $10,000.

Her biggest contributions come from organized labor. The PAC run by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters gave her $3,000, and the Tennessee Education Association’s PAC gave her $2,500.

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She is not a prolific legislator, but she says in this political environment, Democrats have to win trust by helping residents one at a time, pointing them to resources and making sure their cases don’t fall through the cracks of bureaucracy.

She said she’s helped people access food stamps, mental health resources, service from the parole board and more. She said she helped a family access resources after their roof caved in.

“Once that parent calls me about that problem,” she said, “I try to inquire about — what are the problems in the neighborhood or in the house, in the home. Is it education? Do you need me to help you with food stamps? Do you need me to help you get to the clinic for a toothache?”

“I can’t solve all the problems, but I can help with information,” she said. “I stay with them until they got somebody they can talk with. … When they call me, I show interest. I follow through on the problem.”

Earlier this year, her colleagues honored her as the oldest legislator in the history of the Tennessee General Assembly and the second-oldest currently-serving state legislator in the country.

Asked if this would be her last two-year term in the House, Cooper didn’t say no. She said that before retiring, she would want to mentor and elevate someone she trusts who is active in the community.

She plans to spend her 93rd birthday — primary day — on the phone, making sure people get out to vote.

“Those,” she said, “are the things that get the majority back.”


Barbara Cooper Will Richardson Tennessee General Assembly August 2022 election

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Ian Round

Ian Round

Ian Round is The Daily Memphian’s state government reporter. He came to Tennessee from Maryland where he reported on local politics for Baltimore Brew. He earned a Master of Journalism degree from the University of Maryland in December 2019.


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