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Race, Religion Emerge In Memphis Campaign

As a crowded race to represent a heavily black congressional district in Tennessee turns rough-and-tumble, one white candidate is saying he has been the target of anti-Jewish campaign tactics.

Fourteen Democratic candidates — including Steve Cohen, a 24-year veteran of the state Senate — are vying to represent Tennessee’s ninth district. The area encompasses nearly all of Memphis and has been represented by African-Americans since Harold Ford, Sr. was elected in 1975.

Some leaders in the city’s black community have called for a winnowing down of the race’s dozen African-American hopefuls, in an effort to increase the chances of a black candidate capturing the seat. In recent weeks, according to Cohen’s staff, 12 district residents have alleged that they were contacted by phone to participate in surveys — allegedly conducted on behalf of one of Cohen’s black rivals, Ed Stanton — that seemed designed to highlight his Jewish background.

“It’s starting to get ugly,” said Malcolm Levi, a staffer for the Cohen campaign. Stanton is “trying to pull votes away from Steve and make note of the fact that Steve is Jewish while Stanton is Christian.”

The fight in Tennessee appears to resemble a similar controversy in Brooklyn, where another Jewish lawmaker, City Councilman David Yassky, is being criticized by some African-American leaders over his bid to become the congressman of a district where the majority of the voters are black. Yassky, a Brooklyn Heights resident who was elected to city council in 2001, has been under fire from Reverend Al Sharpton and other black leaders, who are pressing him to withdraw from the race in order to ensure that an African American is elected to represent the 11th congressional district, which in the 1960s sent the first black woman to Congress, Shirley Chisholm.

Over the past 30 years, and particularly during the 1990s, redistricting efforts across the country have packed minority voters into new districts where they constitute a majority — a strategy that has resulted in the election of more black and Latino representatives, but has also at times been seen by political observers as a Republican method for reducing the total number of Democratic office holders. Tennessee’s ninth district is currently represented by Harold Ford, Jr., a Democrat and African American who succeeded his father, Harold Ford, Sr., in 1997. Ford Jr. is currently running for the Senate seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist. If elected, Ford would become the first black senator since Reconstruction from the former Confederacy.

Through a spokesperson, Ford — who is counting on significant support in his Senate race from the 80% of Tennessee voters who are white — declined to comment on whether he agreed with the assertion that the ninth district should be represented only by an African American.

Cohen argued that the parallel was clear between his campaign and Ford’s.

“Don’t judge me by my race, but by my record, and treat me like Harold Ford, Jr. is asking people to treat him across the state,” Cohen said. “I think it would be a great statement to the country if Tennessee had an African-American senator and a Caucasian Democratic, progressive representative from this congressional district.”

Cohen is one of only two white candidates in the crowded primary race and the only Jew. If elected, he would be the first Jewish congressman from Tennessee, as well as the first white Democrat to represent a significant portion of Memphis since the mid-1960s.

The winner of the Democratic primary on August 3 is expected to win the general election easily in November, given the party’s dominance in the district.

Tennessee does not require a run-off election in the event that no candidate wins a majority of votes, leading some political observers to speculate that Cohen may win the race mostly with the support of white voters in the district, which, according to Congressional Quarterly, is nearly three-fifths African American. The primary is an open one, meaning Cohen could benefit from the participation of white conservatives who would normally vote Republican.

While there have been no official polls conducted of the field, the presumed frontrunners include Nikki Tinker, a corporate lawyer who worked on previous campaigns for Harold Ford, Jr; Stanton, a lawyer for FedEx, as well as Julian Boltin and Cohen, the only two candidates to have served in elective office.

Cohen told the Forward that during his nearly three decades in politics, his religion had never been an issue. The state senator said he was shocked when it suddenly became an issue during a series of candidate forums that were held by the Black Ministerial Association over the past several months.

While all the candidates were invited to the events, they were particularly billed as way to vet the African-American candidates and cull the field in advance of the August 3 primary. An email sent by the campaign of one African-American candidate, Ron Redwing, was titled, “The Plan to Seek Clarity Out of Confusion,” and noted that “many of the candidates are not known well enough to be elected and will only divide the vote. For the first time in 30 years Memphis could be without African-American representation in the U.S. Congress.”

The message also stated that the forums had “the objective of listening to the various candidates… in search of a consensus candidate for the ninth congressional race.”

According to Cohen, at the forum held on April 9, the moderator, Reverend LaSimba Gray of New Sardis Baptist Church, drew attention to Cohen’s Jewish background and urged the audience not to vote for him.

“He invited me over to his church for Passover, and said that he loves Jewish people, but that Jewish people vote for Jewish people, and black people should vote for black people,” Cohen told the Forward. “I was just stunned. I couldn’t believe he was bringing up my religion and being Jewish.”

Gray did not return calls for comment from the Forward.

More recently, Cohen’s camp says, district residents have reported being asked to participate in telephone surveys that resembled push polling — a bare-knuckled campaign device designed to spread negative information as much as to solicit the opinions of the interviewee.

Betsy Saslawsky, a lifelong resident of Memphis who, like Cohen, belongs to the Temple Israel Reform congregation, said that June 18 she participated in a telephone survey that included positive questions aimed at Ed Stanton and negative questions aimed at Cohen, including one that asked if she was aware that Cohen had challenged the chaplain of the Tennessee State Senate on the Senate floor after he delivered a prayer in Jesus’ name.

Saslawsky said she was asked, “Are you more likely to vote for a born-again Christian or a Jew?”

“I absolutely was speechless” at that point, she said. “I thought for a second, and I said to the guy, ‘You know, I’d really love to know who’s paying you.’”

Will McGown, 37, a furniture maker and, like Saslawsky, a Cohen supporter, described a similar experience. According to McGown, when he asked who was financing the poll, the person conducting the survey said it was Ed Stanton.

In an interview with the Forward, Stanton acknowledged that his campaign had financed a telephone survey, which he said was “certainly within the framework of what’s accepted and standard.” Stanton declined to say if the survey included a question about whether respondents would rather vote for a Jew or a Christian or to provide a written copy of the survey. The candidate directed questions to Jefrey Pollack of the Global Strategies Group. Pollack did not return a call for comment.

Leon Gray, a radio talk-show host in Memphis and a cousin of Reverend Gray, said he disagreed with calls, like those made in New York, for white candidates to drop out of races for majority-minority seats. He said his main hope in Memphis was for the black field to narrow and become competitive.

Gray told the Forward that Cohen’s religion was a fair topic of conversation, given the city’s location in the Bible Belt.

“This is an area where a Jewish person might be seen on both the white and black side as not necessarily the representative for Christians,” Gray said.

According to some political observers, the black candidates may be particularly tempted to play up Cohen’s faith in an attempt to dampen the numbers of white Christian conservatives who might otherwise attempt to use the open primary to vote for him, based on his race.


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