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Jewish Pol Wins Nod in Minority District

A liberal Jewish lawmaker in Memphis, Tenn., has won the Democratic nomination for Congress in a majority black district but has yet to secure the endorsement of several African American figures and could face a third-party challenger.

On August 3, State Senator Steve Cohen — overcoming a crowded field that included a dozen black opponents — became the first white candidate in three decades to win the backing of Democratic voters in Tennessee’s ninth district, which is nearly 60% African American. In the process, he aroused intense opposition from some black candidates and communal leaders, and also found himself targeted for defeat by Emily’s List, a powerful Washington-based political action committee that backs “progressive” pro-choice women.

The seat’s current occupant, Democratic scion Rep. Harold Ford Jr., is himself mounting a historic campaign to become the first black U.S. senator from the former Confederacy since the Reconstruction period. Ford, whose brother Jake is running as an independent, has yet to issue an endorsement in the ninth district race. Cohen’s main primary opponents also have not decided whom to endorse.

While Ford’s competitive run for Senate — its success dependent on the attitudes of the state’s overwhelmingly white electorate — is being hailed as a positive development for southern race relations, Cohen’s bid has been fraught with controversy.

The ninth district race “may very well be a statement on the future of Southern politics,” said Michael Fitzgerald, political science professor and chair of the American studies department at the University of Tennessee. “Is it possible for white candidates to bridge the racial gap in those districts previously held by African American incumbents? I think this [situation] is going to continue to happen because increasingly in the South, there are opportunities for African Americans” to move beyond serving in the House of Representatives, which “would have been unthinkable 25 years ago.”

Cohen, a 24-year-veteran of the State Senate, won his August 3 primary with 31% of the vote, while Nikki Tinker, a corporate attorney who previously managed campaigns for Ford, came in second with 25%. Joe Ford Jr., cousin of Harold Ford Jr., was third, followed by Shelby County Commissioner Julian Bolton, who was backed by Harold Ford Sr. The senior Ford held the seat for 22 years until 1996, before making way for his son. Ford Jr. won the seat by soundly defeating Cohen in the Democratic primary.

In the weeks leading up to the August 3 primary, some of the candidates and black community leaders questioned Cohen’s ability to serve based on both his religion and his race. Three days before the primary, Bolton told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that Cohen, if elected, would want to join the Congressional Black Caucus solely to lobby its members on behalf of Israel. “He thinks he’s going to go in there and trick the CBC,” Bolton told the newspaper. “He thinks they’d be honored to have him. The only reason he wants to join is that he wants to get money for Israel.”

In June, Cohen’s campaign publicized what it said were telephone surveys — allegedly conducted on behalf of one black candidate — that highlighted the candidate’s Jewish background. Several Memphis residents told the Forward that they had participated in the phone calls, which seemed to include negative information about Cohen as well as a question about whether respondents would rather vote for a Christian or a Jew.

To a far greater degree than Cohen’s Judaism, however, his identity as a white man has sparked controversy. In the wake of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Tennessee’s ninth district, like many urban districts across the country, was drawn with boundaries that promoted a black majority large enough to elect black representatives.

During this year’s primary campaign, some of Memphis’s black leaders called for the community to coalesce around the strongest of the African American candidates in order to avoid splitting the vote. An e-mail sent by the campaign of one black candidate, Ron Redwing, lamented the fact that “for the first time in 30 years, Memphis could be without African American representation.” He invited supporters to attend a candidates’ forum designed to help choose “a consensus candidate.”

Tinker was given an additional boost by financial support from Emily’s List, which is now placing a particular emphasis on helping minority women. The group sent a series of mailings to ninth district residents, including one that accused Cohen of voting against $110 million in extra K-12 school funding — a misleading claim, according to Cohen’s campaign, because the increase was one item in a state budget that cut funding for higher education, health care and parks. Another mailing attacked Cohen’s vote against a law that would have allowed alleged sex crimes victims to testify via closed circuit television, a measure that Cohen, a lawyer, voted against because it raised constitutional concerns, according to a campaign spokesperson.

Emily’s List did not return calls for comment.

Cohen’s camp, including some backers within the African American community, note that he is a liberal legislator — who has received endorsements from the Sierra Club, the National Education Association and the Ironworkers’ union — who has long represented a state senate district that is split evenly among whites and blacks. In contrast, Ford Jr.’s competitive bid for the U.S. Senate is made possible by his standing as a centrist Democrat who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq.

The political colors of 33-year old Jake Ford are largely unknown. He never has run for office, and his Web site currently features pictures showing him with family members and with such Democratic bigwigs as Bill Clinton and Al Gore, but no other information is given. Some Memphis commentators and Cohen backers are already calling on the Ford family to support Cohen, based on his record and on his position as the Democratic nominee.

“If the Ford family are real Democrats, they will pull Jake out of the congressional race and support Steve Cohen,” read the title of a recent posting on the blog of Thaddeus Stevens, an African American who once hosted a local radio show. Another entry on this blog asked: “What does Jake bring to the table? Is being black enough? Would you vote for him just because he’s Jr.’s brother or Harold Sr.’s son?” Repeated calls to the Harold Ford Jr. campaign from the Forward were not returned. Last June, through a spokesperson, the congressman declined to comment on whether he felt that the ninth district should be represented only by an African American.

Tinker, who finished second in the primary, also has not endorsed Cohen. “I haven’t thought about it, really,” she told the Forward.

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