Keeda Haynes, lawyer and former public defender, is looking to make history in Tennessee's upcoming primary election on August 6.
The 42-year-old Democrat, who is looking to represent Tennessee's fifth district in Congress, is running against Democratic candidate Joshua Rawlings and longtime Democratic congressman Rep. Jim Cooper, who has represented the district, which includes Nashville, for 17 years.
If Haynes wins, she could become the first Black congresswoman to represent the state; Tennessee has only elected two Black people to Congress in the past.
Haynes, who served six-and-a-half years as an assistant public defender at the Metro Nashville Public Defender's Office, currently works as a legal adviser for Free Hearts, a nonprofit organization in Tennessee that provides support, education and advocacy to families impacted by the criminal justice system. Her commitment to fighting for criminal justice reform is one that's very personal as the Tennessee State University graduate spent nearly four years in jail after college for a marijuana-related crime she says she did not commit.
Upon her release from prison in December 2006, the Tennessee native set her sights on becoming a public defender after hearing other women in prison share stories about how their public defenders were treating them.
"I was fortunate enough to be able to have a private attorney and he was great," she tells CNBC Make It. "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."
Haynes started working as a legal assistant for the attorney who represented her while putting herself through law school at the Nashville School of Law at night. After graduating law school in 2012 and passing the bar exam, Haynes then had to pass the character and fitness examination by the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners. In December 2012, she became a practicing attorney in Nashville.
That following year, in 2013, she started working at Nashville's public defender's office, where she remained for six and a half years. "It was there," she says, "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."
A few years ago, she says she wrote a letter to Congressman Jim Cooper, who she's running against in the primary, offering to volunteer with him and other members of Congress to work on criminal justice reform.
"We met for 15 minutes and I never heard from him again," Haynes says, adding that since Cooper has been in office she doesn't believe enough focus has been given to the criminal justice system in their district.
Cooper confirmed with CNBC Make It that Haynes did in fact send him a letter in 2016. At the time, he says, "I was already working on voting rights issues — including restoration of rights for formerly incarcerated individuals — so we had a good discussion. I have continued to work with local judges and our DA on these issues, and we are making progress in Nashville. Our correspondence continued when my office followed up to assist her with a tour of the White House."
Beyond the inaction that Haynes feels she's seen in her home state, the former public defender says if elected to Congress she wants to also work on making adjustments to the criminal justice system on a national level.
"When you look at what's going on in the federal system when it comes to the mandatory minimum sentencing law, we are seeing a record number of people being locked up," she says. "The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and we still have not reconciled what the fictitious war on drugs has done to Black and Brown communities."
In addition to focusing on criminal justice reform, Haynes says if elected to Congress she wants to work on fixing the "health-care crisis we're experiencing now" as there are currently a record number of people living without health insurance.
"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 says. "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."
Additionally, Haynes says she plans to fight for economic justice by raising the $7.25 minimum wage rate in her district to at least $15 per hour in order to "help people lift themselves out of poverty." Doing this, she says, will also make housing more affordable for those who are working low-wage jobs.
"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 says. "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."
Though her election will be a historic one if she wins, Haynes says her focus isn't on making history, but rather on making real change in her district.
"Being the first anything doesn't mean anything to me," she says. "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."