Memphis Pol Gets Cold Shoulder in Racially Charged Electoral Rematch

Congressional Black Caucus Opts Not To Back Incumbent Democrat

By Jennifer Siegel

Published March 06, 2008, issue of March 14, 2008.
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In an election year dominated by the issue of race in the presidential campaign, a Jewish congressman from Memphis, Tenn., is crying foul over the reluctance of his African American colleagues to lend a hand to his re-election bid.

Freshman Rep. Steve Cohen — one of a handful of white lawmakers to represent a majority-black congressional district — faces a rematch of his racially charged 2006 campaign that already has seen one local minister brand him a Jesus hater. In the face of such attacks, Cohen says he is disappointed that fellow lawmakers in the Congressional Black Caucus have not rallied to his defense. It is traditional for members of Congress to support fellow incumbents from their party, but that has not been the case with Cohen and the CBC.

One member of the caucus, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, is openly backing Cohen’s black primary challenger, Nikki Tinker. Another lawmaker in the CBC allegedly has warned Cohen that soliciting support from African American representatives would spur other members of the CBC to come out against him.

“I was told it was best not to get into bringing members in, because it would then force other members to come in, and the best thing… was to keep it as a local issue, and not a Washington thing with the CBC,” Cohen told the Forward, while declining to specify whom he had spoken with.

The CBC’s chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan, declined to comment on the matter. Tubbs Jones told the Forward that she is supporting Tinker financially and plans to campaign for her in Tennessee over the next month.

“I have a relationship with Nikki Tinker, and I don’t have a relationship with Congressman Cohen,” Tubbs Jones said. “I supported her in the primary last time… and I’m consistent with that support.”

The exchange highlights the fine line Cohen has treaded with his African American colleagues since arriving on Capitol Hill nearly two years ago. The congressman won election from Tennessee’s ninth district — which encompasses the entire city of Memphis and is 60% black — as the only white candidate in a crowded primary field and immediately got off to a rocky start with black lawmakers, many of whom had backed Tinker, his chief opponent in the primary.

Before arriving in Washington, Cohen announced to reporters that he hoped to be accepted into the CBC, an offer that was quickly rebuffed by leaders of the caucus. Since then, Cohen, a liberal Democrat who was previously a longtime state senator from Memphis, has sponsored a number of congressional resolutions of particular interest to the African American community — including a resolution calling for an official apology for slavery and Jim Crow — and has forged close working relationships with a number of black colleagues. Last fall, after Cohen came under attack locally from black ministers who challenged his support for federal hate crimes legislation to protect gay rights, he found an ally in Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, an African American lawmaker from Missouri, who defended the measure at a town hall meeting in Cohen’s district.

Looking forward, Cohen will need allies in the African American community as he takes on his chief rival in the August 5 Democratic primary: Nikki Tinker, an African American attorney who served as a campaign manager for Cohen’s predecessor, former Rep. Harold Ford Jr., and who came in second in the 2006 primary amid a field crowded with other black candidates. Named the seventh best-funded primary challenger nationwide, according to a recent report in CQ Politics, Tinker faces considerably better odds with a winnowed field this year, while Cohen has already found himself battling anti-Jewish sentiment.

Last month, reports surfaced that an African American minister from Murfreesboro, Tenn., had circulated a flier proclaiming that “Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen and the Jews Hate Jesus.” The flier urged black leaders in Memphis to “see to it that one and ONLY one black Christian faces this opponent of Christ and Christianity in the 2008 campaign.”

Cohen says he expected to counter such attacks with support from a number of “old guard” leaders in the Memphis black community — including Maxine Smith, a legendary leader of the Memphis National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and longtime civil rights leader Russell Sugarmon. But Cohen said that CBC members have given him little support, even as they leverage considerable resources to help African American candidates.

“It’s kind of, ‘Do as I say and not as I do,” Cohen said. The lawmaker expressed frustration that the CBC is heavily backing André Carson, grandson of recently deceased Rep. Julia Carson of Indiana, in his upcoming Democratic primary, at the same time that some caucus members may oppose Cohen, an incumbent lawmaker who has served a full term.

For now, Cohen says he’s staying hopeful about his campaign, though he is disappointed by colleagues who have come out in favor of Tinker, like Tubbs Jones.

“At first I thought, ‘Fine… let it be,’” Cohen said of Tubbs Jones’s endorsement. “And then I thought: ‘Wait a minute. What if I were black and I had this seat and Nikki Tinker ran for this seat? Would Tubbs Jones come out against a fellow Congressional Black Caucus member? I don’t think so.”

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