For many in Tennessee House District 86, voting for Barbara Cooper long has been equated with choosing to be served by a state representative who demonstrated an unswerving devotion to duty.
Cooper died Oct. 25 at age 93. Her name remained on the ballot for the Nov. 8 election and 73 percent of voters cast their ballots in her favor.
What unfolds next is a process explained in a statement released by the Shelby County Election Commission on Wednesday, the day after the election. Cooper’s name, by Tennessee law, had to remain on the ballot.
On a date to be set by Gov. Bill Lee, a special election will be held to fill the District 86 seat.
Notably, some had wanted Cooper to step aside, pointing to her age. She responded with the intention to keep serving as long as she could do so effectively, God and voters willing.
Among those who loved and knew her best, her resolve to win the Nov. 8 election was a given.
“Mother and I were talking, and I asked what she planned to do,” said her daughter, Joan Burnett Cooper. “Mom responded, ‘I’m going to win.’ And she did.”
State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a close associate, was not surprised, knowing, he said, “her constituency, and the kind of respect, reference, and love they have had for her years of service. Their confusion, in the midst of grief, was not knowing what to do. Whether or not to vote in that race at all.”
Hardaway counseled eligible District 86 voters that not to vote for Cooper essentially was a vote against her.
“They wanted to honor her memory, and they wanted to make sure her replacement would be their choice,” said Hardaway. “I explained that if Cooper wins her seat posthumously, the process would play out, and they would ultimately decide her successor.”
State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, who knew the joy of riding with Cooper to and from the state Capitol in Nashville, called her “a legislative warrior and community champion, who had served District 86 for 26 years.
“Her leadership embodies serving the least among us. I think the voters of District 86 understood the importance of preserving the legacy of that seat remaining Democratic. Whoever is chosen to represent District 86 will have big shoes to fill.”
Johnnie Mosley, Cooper’s confidante-godson, Mosley said he missed the motherly talks and the wise counsel.
“I was not surprised at Rep. Cooper’s election results,” said Mosley. “Her constituents honored her service and legacy, not only as their state representative but also as an educator. She has a history of getting 70 percent of the vote.
“Even in death, her constituents wanted to ensure that her legacy and memory live on. Mrs. Cooper was so well loved by those she served, and she genuinely loved them, too.”
Cooper was honored by the Tennessee House in April as the oldest-serving state legislator.