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Memphis Maneuvers

Black Leaders Weigh Feasibility of Unifying Behind Cohen Challenger

Any way you look at it, freshman Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) is in an awkward position.

Not only is he one of the few white Congressmen to ever represent a majority-black district, but his 2006 Democratic primary win was largely attributable to the record number of candidates —15, most of whom were black — who appeared on the ballot.

Whether Cohen is held to a single term in the Memphis-based 9th district will have a lot to do with how many primary challengers he has this cycle. If the black community in Memphis — about 60 percent of the electorate — unifies behind a single black candidate, Tennessee politicos and local black leaders believe Cohen will be in a tenuous position.

“Pretty much the consensus is, in two years there will be a consensus candidate and he won’t be able to win,” said

Tennessee state Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D), who was part of Concerned Clergy and Citizens of Memphis, a group that attempted to rally the black community behind one black candidate in the previous cycle.

A spokeswoman for Cohen said the Congressman isn’t worrying about the forces that may be arraying against him.

“I think his take on this is that he gets up here and does the best job he can and serves his district — the rest of that he has no control over,” said Marilyn Dillihay, Cohen’s press secretary and legislative director.

At the moment, Nikki Tinker, a lawyer who is vice president of labor relations for Northwest Airlink/Pinnacle Airlines, Inc., has been the most visible potential Democratic challenger.

Tinker came in second to Cohen in the 2006 primary and her substantial financial support from EMILY’s List gave her a significant fundraising advantage over her fellow black contenders. She also is close to some members of the powerful Ford family, having served in 2004 as campaign manager to then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) in his last race for the seat that Cohen now holds.

“Nikki is still running,” said the Rev. LaSimba Gray, pastor of the 2,000-strong New Sardis Baptist Church in Memphis, a Tinker supporter. Gray, who headed Concerned Clergy and Citizens of Memphis, added: “She’s talking to everyone — visiting political groups, city groups, churches. She never did stop campaigning.”

Ramona Oliver, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, which works to elect women Democrats who support abortion rights, said that Tinker has told the group’s leaders that she is interested in running again.

Tinker, however, appears to be laying low. She declined to be interviewed on the race, saying only: “I’m not ready to make a comment on that at all.”

Should she choose to move ahead with a bid in 2008, it’s not clear she’ll be the lone black candidate.

Political consultant Jake Ford, Harold Ford Jr.’s brother and son of ex-Rep. Harold Ford Sr., who previously held the seat for 22 years, may also try again. Jake Ford ran in the general election last year as an Independent, though he’s unsure if he runs again whether it would be as a Democrat or as an Independent.

Political consultant Ron Redwing, who finished sixth in last year’s primary, said that several black community, business and religious leaders had reached out to him about the 2008 race and that he is “keeping his options open.”

Others mentioned as possible repeat candidates include former Shelby County Commissioner Julian Bolton and FedEx official Ed Stanton. There has also been some speculation that A.C. Wharton, the very popular Shelby County mayor who endorsed Cohen in 2006, will run, though some Memphis politicos believe that is unlikely to happen.

Attorney Joe Ford Jr., a cousin to Harold Ford Jr. who came in third in the Democratic primary, has since moved back to California where he has an entertainment and intellectual property law practice. He said he has ruled out a run in 2008, though he plans to move permanently to Memphis in the coming years.

While all this jockeying is going on, Cohen has been working overtime to prove his credentials on black issues.

All four of the bills for which Cohen is the primary sponsor — apologizing for slavery, adding pioneering black U.S. District Court Judge Odell Horton’s name to a federal building in Memphis, honoring the Negro Baseball leagues and recognizing the cultural contributions of the Stax Records soul music label on its 50th anniversary — have had a racial focus.

He’s made a point of hiring prominent blacks such as Randy Wade, a former Shelby County Sheriff Department official who served as a key liaison with the Memphis black community and now works in Cohen’s district office. Cohen recently brought House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) to the district for a town hall meeting that received high marks in the black community.

“He’s obviously trying to insulate himself from any challenge,” said Matt Kuhn, the outgoing Shelby County Democratic chairman. “If there is any legislator acutely conscious that he represents a majority African-American district it’s Steve Cohen.”

But for some black leaders, that isn’t good enough, Hardaway said.

“He’s trying to show up at an excessive number of events. I think some of it is perceived as being patronizing and some blacks are offended by it,” he said. “The one thing Steve can’t do is, he can’t be a black man. He can’t have black experiences. He can’t go back and live a black childhood.”

That point was brought home after Cohen said during his campaign that he wanted to join the Congressional Black Caucus. He later backed away from that statement when it became clear he would not be allowed to join because he is not black.

It is not clear whether the CBC collectively or its individual Members will work to defeat Cohen next year. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), the CBC chairwoman, did not respond to several phone messages left at her office this week.

Dillihay said Cohen has a long history of working with the black community in his district and is extremely aware of his constituents’ priorities.

“He just didn’t arrive in Memphis,” she said. “He was born and raised there and has been in political life there. [He’s] not a Johnny come lately.”

Some black leaders praised Cohen’s performance to date and said he should be given a chance to prove himself. Warner Dickerson, president of the Memphis NAACP, said that so far Cohen has “voted the right way.”

“We want representation that reflects the aspirations and feelings of us. That’s more important than just having a person that looks like us,” Dickerson said. Still, he added: “Our preference would be to have Harold Ford Jr. and his daddy.”

J.M. Bailey, a black member of the state Democratic party’s executive committee, said Cohen, a former state Senator and father of the Tennessee lottery, had a strong track record of support for the black community.

“The community was somewhat torn during the Congressional race and that feeling is still the prevailing feeling,” he said.

Joe Ford Jr. said it will be a challenge to get black leaders to embrace a single black candidate.

“There is no one unified black voice” in Memphis, he said. “Each of the black factions so to speak in Memphis, they all have their own different needs and allies. … Even within the Ford family there are various factions.”

At least one of Cohen’s former opponents in the primary, Tyson Pratcher, an ex-aide to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), said: “I fully expect to be endorsing him next time. The only argument I can make [against him] is I’m black and he’s not. That’s a horrendous argument.”

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