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Cohen: Race Is Not Black and White

He is a minority candidate among his electorate and his campaign has become racially charged as religious leaders in black churches play a prominent role in shaping public debate.

But he isn’t Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.); he’s Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.).

Cohen is the only white House Member to represent a majority-black district, and he’s facing a primary challenge this summer that will determine whether his 2006 election was the result of his being the better candidate or the consequence of being the one top-tier white candidate in a primary that split the minority vote among about a dozen black candidates.

Last week, Cohen said that in light of some of the religious and racial tensions that have developed in his own re-election campaign, he watched Obama’s recent speech on race and politics with particular interest.

“I did see lots of strains that have been involved in my candidacy and my service [in Obama’s speech], except I see them as a white candidate appealing to a black constituency. … He sees it as a person who is considered as a black candidate looking to a white constituency.”

Cohen’s effort to cut across racial lines has paid off. He has supporters in the Congressional Black Caucus, which decided recently not to endorse in the primary.

Cohen — the sponsor of a resolution calling for an official apology for slavery and Jim Crow laws — often finds himself discussing race in his unique role as a white Representative from a 60 percent black district.

When he came to Congress, Cohen expressed interest in joining the Congressional Black Caucus but backed away after it became clear that caucus rules made him ineligible.

“There is a trust barrier black people have with white politicians because so many times white politicians have used them,” Cohen said.

Cohen said he thinks he earned the trust of all parts of his district during the 24 years he served as a Memphis-based state Senator before running for Congress.

“People know me and they know me by my deeds,” Cohen said. “They know that I’m sincere.”

But he hasn’t won over everybody.

Cohen won the Democratic primary in 2006 with just 31 percent of the vote. After he went on to win the general election, several influential black community leaders said the district would be best represented by a black Member of Congress. So, they went to work last year trying to keep the number of black candidates in the race to a minimum to avoid splitting the vote again.

The Rev. LaSimba Gray, pastor of the 2,000-strong New Sardis Baptist Church in Memphis, has been a strong supporter of attorney Nikki Tinker (D), who came in second to Cohen in the 2006 primary with 25 percent of the vote.

Last fall, Gray said Tinker had already won “the primary of African-American candidates” and that “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.”

Tinker, who spent four years as campaign manager for the district’s former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D), formally launched her candidacy again on March 15. She has been on a listening tour of the district since opening the doors of her Memphis campaign office and could not be reached for comment last week.

At the end of last year, Tinker reported $224,000 in her Federal Election Commission account to Cohen’s $522,000 in cash on hand.

During her 2006 campaign, Tinker had significant support from the pro-abortion-rights group EMILY’s List. Last week, the group’s communications director, Ramona Oliver, said that this time, EMILY’s List is “taking a close look at the race and talking to Nikki and watching as she gets set up and ready to go. … Our support for her last time and her performance in the race last cycle would be a factor we consider.”

Tinker has earned the support of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

But Cohen also has been able to secure support within the CBC and has found a strong ally in Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).

CBC executive director Joe Leonard said last week that “if individuals want to work with one or the other candidate … that’s up to the discretion of the CBC member. But there will not be a CBC endorsement in the race.”

With the clock ticking down to Tennessee’s April 3 filing deadline, Cohen also found out last week that he’ll be facing another rerun this year in the form of Jake Ford, the brother of Harold Ford Jr.

After reportedly contemplating filing as a Democratic candidate, Jake Ford filed last week as an Independent, as he did in 2006. When he faced Cohen in the general race that year, Jake Ford took just 22 percent to Cohen’s 60 percent. Republican Mark White earned 18 percent of the vote in that election.

But Cohen, who is Jewish, is also facing opponents from outside the district in his campaign.

Last month, a black minister from Murfreesboro, Tenn. — located outside the district — circulated a flier proclaiming that “Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen and the Jews Hate Jesus.” The flier urged black leaders in Memphis to “see to it that one and ONLY one black Christian faces this opponent of Christ and Christianity in the 2008 campaign.”

Tinker condemned the flyer, but the situation served to heighten the building racial and religious tensions.

Cohen said last week that he’s prepared to tackle the issue of race head-on, as he’s always done.

“I’ve met the fire; I’ve seen it at 312 degrees. I don’t have to worry about it getting any hotter,” Cohen said. “The people who are going to fan those flames, that say this district can only be represented by a black man … I’ve heard it.

“I think Memphis will be seen as a city on a hill,” he added. “I think we’re going to win and win major and these efforts at using religion and race … are going to fall flat on their face.”

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