Skip to content

At political road race, Rep. Jim Cooper eyes the finish line

Got frustration? Either swing an ax or go running, says retiring Tennessee Democrat

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., runs in the ACLI Capital Challenge in Anacostia Park on May 17, 2017. The 2022 race will be his last as a member of Congress.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., runs in the ACLI Capital Challenge in Anacostia Park on May 17, 2017. The 2022 race will be his last as a member of Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Jim Cooper’s team name says it all. 

As captain of team “Not Running for Re-Election,” the Tennessee Democrat takes his mark at the starting line of the Capital Challenge race on Thursday for the last time as a member of Congress. 

He picked the name with help from his staffers, who preferred it over options like “ABCDEF… Gerrymandering.” Cooper also floated “Lame Ducks Can Still Run,” but it didn’t make the cut.

“We run sloooowly,” Cooper said in his office Tuesday. 

The three-mile charity road race sponsored by the American Council of Life Insurers attracts participants from across the political spectrum and begins bright and early in Washington’s Anacostia Park.

For Cooper, it’s a chance to hit the road with some of his remaining staffers as his retirement looms at the end of this term. He still likes to show up for running events in both his district and Washington, but this one has been a staple of his career.   

“It’s one of the few things in Congress that’s 100 percent happy — Who’s against it? Thom Tillis maybe,” he said, recalling one of the more chaotic ACLI moments when the Republican senator from North Carolina passed out during the run. By the next year, Tillis was back at it

“That was memorable,” Cooper said, though he wasn’t near the action. “I think he was ahead of me.”

For Cooper, running provides time to enjoy scenic locales like the Anacostia River, a waterway slowly recovering from decades of neglect and pollution. And he always admires the gazelle-like elite runners who make starting in the back of the pack, but still managing to win, look effortless. 

“They have entirely different mechanics,” he said. “Many of us have to waddle.”

Chugging along the course with members of Congress and other Washington figures has always been a highlight. One of his staffers discovered an old photo showing a youthful Cooper running alongside then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, and it has hung on a wall in the office for months.

Cooper’s first race in 1984 was his fastest, when he clocked in at 20:54, according to race records. He’s run the race at least 18 times, though there have been gaps, including once out of self-preservation.  

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. crosses the finish line during the Capital Challenge in 1992. (Kathleen Beall/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“One year I didn’t go at all because it was lightning and thundering and I didn’t want to die,” he said. “I heard later that there were some people who participated, and I’m assuming that was before the insurance people took over.” 

ACLI has been the title sponsor of the Capital Challenge since 2004. Past sponsors included Nike. 

The self-described “super nerd,” who has a matter-of-fact tone and an academic love of legislative subtleties, said his relationship with running dates back to the days when he played other sports in school. Those days were so long ago, the 67-year-old said, that he remembers what it was like when the first modern running shoes hit store shelves. 

“It was like running on clouds,” he said. 

Today he walks more than he runs but said he tries to do it every day, as a way to get out pent-up energy. 

“The way you work out that frustration is either hitting something hard with an ax or going running,” he said. “I’m a big chainsaw person back home. It’s even better than an ax.”

The moderate Democrat and owner of three chainsaws served his first stint in Congress from 1983 to 1995, before being elected to an open seat in 2002. Earlier this year, he announced he would retire at the end of this Congress, hours after Republican lawmakers in Tennessee approved a redistricting plan that carves up his Nashville-area district. 

Though he poked fun at the situation he found himself in with this year’s team name, he said he knows that redistricting is just part of politics.

“If the other party is in power, it’s our obligation to be more popular than they are,” he said. “And at the state level, we failed — Democrats have to be better at being popular in rural areas.”

Seven other lawmakers will lace up their running shoes Thursday, including two senators. Democratic Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema holds the record for fastest woman in Congress and leads team “Hot Mess,” while GOP West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito is captain of “The Miner League.”

On the House side, Cooper has company from Reps. James Comer, R-Ky., Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., Jared Golden, D-Maine, Mike Levin, D-Calif., and Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., who narrowly beat out Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb to win the House category in 2021. 

A bevy of Washington faithful and their punny teams hailing from the executive branch, judiciary and media annually join members of Congress and their staff. (Full disclosure: CQ Roll Call was one of this year’s sponsors and entered several teams.)

All entry fees benefit Junior Achievement USA, a group that teaches financial literacy to 3 million students every year in more than 125,000 after-school programs.

Though he’s leaving office, Cooper said he’s not seeing this year’s ACLI as having some bigger meaning in the arc of his career. 

“I don’t want to attribute existential qualities to this. It’s just healthy and fun,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a philosophical lodestone or anything.” 

And, just like his congressional career, there’s never a guarantee that he won’t return.

“Who knows,” he said. “I might come back as an alumni runner.”

Recent Stories

Five races to watch in Pennsylvania primaries on Tuesday

‘You talk too much’— Congressional Hits and Misses

Senators seek changes to spy program reauthorization bill

Editor’s Note: Congress and the coalition-curious

Photos of the week ending April 19, 2024

Rule for emergency aid bill adopted with Democratic support