Congressman Cut Off From Own Synagogue

Cohen, Memphis Democrat, Loses Jewish Area in Redistricting

By Nathan Guttman

Published January 15, 2012.
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Democrat Steve Cohen, the first Jewish congressman to represent a district in Tennessee, has lost a key constituency, the small Jewish community in Memphis, after the borders of his district were redrawn.

Rep. Steve Cohen
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Rep. Steve Cohen

Cohen’s Ninth District has been reshaped in a way that cut him off from most of the Jews living in Memphis. Even Cohen’s synagogue will be represented by another congressman.

The redistricting was determined by Tennessee’s Republican-led state legislature, following the latest U.S. Census.

Cohen appealed the decision and asked for an adjustment that would have kept the Jewish community of Memphis, estimated at 2,500 members, and its key institutions, including two large synagogues and a Jewish retirement home, within his district. But on January 13 his appeal was rejected in a final vote.

“They took away from me the area where I grew up and spent most of my life, and gave me an area that is more rural,” Cohen told the Forward several hours after the decision.

“This will make my re-election a bit more difficult,” he added.

Still, local analysts see the three-term congressman as sure to win even with his redrawn district. Cohen said he believes that Memphis’s Jews will continue to support his campaign financially even if they can no longer vote for him.

Cohen’s complaint has irked some Tennessee Republicans who argued against what they see as the congressman’s underlying notion, which is that the Jewish community would be best represented by a Jewish lawmaker.

“I know some things have been said about religion and some things have been said about race that I think later some folks may regret,” Tennessee State Senate Leader Mark Norris told the city’s Daily News.

Norris was referring to a campaign mouted against Cohen during the 2008 Democratic primary elections, in which an African-American candidate, Willie Herenton, claimed he would be better in representing the city’s black majority than Cohen.

Cohen never argued that his faith would make him more suitable to represent Memphis’s Jews. His claim was that a minor change in the district maps, as he had proposed, would help him maintain ties to his community.

As for the Jews of Memphis, most will now be part of Tennessee’s Eighth District. Their representative, if he wins re-election as expected, will be Republican Stephen Fincher, who in many ways is very different from Cohen.

Fincher, a farmer and gospel singer, was endorsed by the Tea Party movement and resides in the town of Frog Jump, an hour and half drive from Memphis.

Cohen’s redrawn district will be less urban and more conservative. But the Jewish congressman, who has spent much of his time in Congress working on issues related to civil rights, said he does not feel a need to tone down his liberal political views.

“I haven’t moderated my views since I was 6 years old,” he said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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