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Members Take Sides in Memphis Race

Almost 40 years after civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead at a Memphis, Tenn., motel, a debate over the color of one’s skin and, perhaps, the content of one’s character, again is under way in the River City.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who last year became one of the few white Congressmen to represent a majority-black district, is facing a re-election primary challenge that will determine whether his 2006 victory was really the result of his being the better candidate or simply the consequence of being the one top-tier white candidate in a primary that split the minority vote among almost a dozen black candidates.

Right now, Cohen has a single primary challenger in attorney Nikki Tinker (D), and some influential black community leaders who believe the minority-majority district should be represented by a minority are working to keep it that way.

Tinker came in second to Cohen in last year’s primary, losing by fewer than 4,500 votes.

The Rev. LaSimba Gray, pastor of the 2,000-strong New Sardis Baptist Church in Memphis, said Tinker’s showing in last year’s primary battle shows that “she has won … the primary of African-American candidates.”

Now, Gray said, a group of concerned citizens in the 9th district who are working to increase blacks’ representation in Congress are trying to ensure that no other black candidate enters the race and splits the black vote again.

“The road has been cleared for Nikki and we are busy meeting with candidates who ran last time to show them the reality — the fact that with all of them in the race they can’t win,” Gray said.

While working to increase black representation in Congress also is a primary goal of the Congressional Black Caucus, CBC spokeswoman Keiana Barrett said that as of right now there has been no formal discussion among the Caucus about getting behind Tinker.

“Her particular candidacy has not come up at all,” Barrett said.

But Gray said the CBC membership is in fact getting involved in the race and, he said, they are getting involved on the wrong side. He pointed to a town hall meeting held in Memphis over the weekend in which Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who is a CBC member, appeared as Cohen’s guest.

“We’re asking them to stay out of this race,” Gray said. “Steve Cohen has been quoting many of them heavily and bringing them into the district and we are simply asking them to stay out of this race. This is a race in the 9th Congressional district where we are trying to elect a representative to add to the Congressional Black Caucus.”

Meanwhile, non-CBC members are getting involved in the race. In the last four months, eight Members have given $15,000 in contributions to Cohen’s campaign, including a $4,000 contribution from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and $1,000 from fellow Tennessee Rep. John Tanner (D).

As of their latest FEC filing, Tinker had $172,000 in cash on hand and Cohen had $374,000. Last cycle, Tinker received a significant amount of financial support from EMILY’s List, and though the group has been in talks with Tinker again this cycle, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List said on Wednesday that no decision has been made yet on whether to endorse her again.

A spokeswoman for Tinker could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, but Gray said Cohen has had several missteps since taking office, such as seeking membership in the Congressional Black Caucus, which have embarrassed the district and proven he is out of touch with the majority of voters in Memphis.

But Cohen spokeswoman Marilyn Dillihay said it is Gray who is out of touch with the district and that his anti-Cohen sentiment is based purely on skin color.

“Anyone should be concerned when someone wants to focus on someone based solely on race,” she said. “You hope someone will be judged on their record and what they do.”

Dillihay said Cohen’s skin color has unfortunately been an issue since last year’s unusually large primary battle, but that the Congressman is planning on being re-elected and once that happens, “I think it will quell [those questions] to some degree.”

Meanwhile, Cleaver spokesman Danny Rotert said his boss was glad to be a guest of Cohen’s in Memphis over the weekend, where he was able to see firsthand how well-regarded the freshman Congressman is in his home town.

Rotert said the Congressman was disappointed that some people might judge Cohen’s effectiveness based on his skin color.

“If somebody here said Congressman Cleaver can’t represent his district because it’s a [majority] white district, that would not go very far,” Rotert said on Wednesday. “So it’s too bad that that’s the rhetoric that’s being used in Memphis.”

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