As the national media focus on Connecticut and on Senator Joseph Lieberman’s defeat in the Democratic primary Tuesday, another important political drama is unfolding in Tennessee’s ninth congressional district. State Senator Steve Cohen beat out a crowded Democratic primary field last week to secure the party’s nomination in the race to replace Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who is now running for the U.S. Senate. Cohen’s August 3 victory marks the first time in three decades that the Democratic voters in the majority black district have not chosen an African American candidate.
Cohen, an unabashed liberal who has represented many of the district’s voters in the state legislature for 24 years, argues that his groundbreaking victory should be seen as a positive development, especially when coupled with Ford’s competitive bid to become the first black senator from the old Confederacy since the Reconstruction period. So far, as Jennifer Siegel reports on Page 3, Ford has balked at endorsing Cohen, increasing speculation over whether the congressman and other black leaders are planning to support Ford’s brother Jake, a political novice who is registered to run as an independent.
Some leaders in the black community of Memphis see the election of a white candidate as a setback for minorities and a betrayal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A similar dynamic is at play in Brooklyn, where City Councilman David Yassky is running against several black candidates to replace the retiring Rep. Major Owens.
Democrats should stand proud as the party of diversity: Of the 43 black members of Congress, not one is a Republican (and only three of the 37 Jewish members are Republicans). It is important to note that this success was not an accident; it is in large part a product of the creation of so-called “minority-majority” congressional districts that would be willing to elect black candidates. But it would be wrong to say that a dedicated public servant like Cohen — with a proven two-decade track record of serving both black and white constituents — is unfit to serve only because of his race. Such a view would alienate many white voters and, in a real sense, undercut the cause of civil rights that Democrats have so admirably championed.