Rep. Steve Cohen (D)
Tennessee 9th District
Memphis is the largest city in Tennessee, though its metropolitan area is second to Nashville. In the state’s far southwestern corner, 500 miles from the Appalachian border with Virginia but only 20 miles from Mississippi’s cotton fields and riverboat casinos, metropolitan Memphis has one of the highest percentages of African-Americans in the country, evidence of the city’s economic heritage as a capital of the Cotton Kingdom. Big Mississippi planters used to come north to sell their crops in the courtyard of the Peabody Hotel, then make financial arrangements for the next growing season. According to tradition, ducks still famously march daily to the hotel’s fountain for a dip.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The city’s most celebrated tradition is the blues, a musical form worlds apart from Nashville’s country music, which emerged from mountainous, mainly white Middle and East Tennessee. The Memphis sound originated from the self-taught musical stylings of poor, rural blacks in the Mississippi Delta. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the most talented black musicians migrated north to Memphis and congregated downtown on Beale Street. The blues sound was later adapted by Elvis Presley, a poor white from rural Mississippi, in pivotal sessions in July 1954 at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in Memphis—the birth of rock ’n’ roll. In the early 1960s, Memphis once again became the crucible of a new sound, soul music, which emerged as a counterpoint to rock, its increasingly white-dominated cousin. For some years, Memphis tried to downplay its musical heritage. Much of Beale Street was razed and set on a misguided path toward urban renewal. But the city came to recognize its history as an asset. Graceland, Presley’s garishly decorated mansion, attracts hordes of musical pilgrims from all over the world, and a Museum of American Soul Music opened in 2003 on the site of the Stax studio, demolished in 1989. Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Sam & Dave made their records at the Stax studio.
Geographically central, Memphis is the home of the first supermarket chain: the Piggly Wiggly, founded in 1916 (its symbol, Mr. Pig, has slimmed down since then). It also hosted the first Holiday Inn. The biggest employer by far is FedEx, operating out of the world’s busiest cargo airport, although the company did announce layoffs in 2009. The airport pumps nearly $21 billion into the economy every year. Northwest Airlines had a domestic hub at Memphis, until it merged in 2008 with Delta Airlines. For some years, racial discord scarred the political life of Memphis. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated there in 1968, and the site, the Lorraine Motel, has been converted into a civil rights museum. Even today, resurgent Beale Street is one of the few racially integrated spaces in the city, a division that holds equally true in voting. Blacks vote almost unanimously Democratic, and whites vote Republican by margins almost as great. Blacks narrowly outnumber whites in Shelby County. Many African-Americans have moved into the middle class, although Memphis continues to have the highest poverty rate in Tennessee. In recent years, Memphis has been losing population, shrinking by nearly 12,000 people between 2000 and 2006.
The 9th Congressional District of Tennessee consists of most of the city of Memphis, some of its suburban fringe and about 30 precincts in east Shelby County. The black-majority 9th remains the strongest Democratic district in the state and is essential to the success of Democrats running statewide. In 2008, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama greatly improved on Al Gore’s 63% in 2000 and John Kerry’s 70% in 2004 by winning 78% in the district in 2008.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D)
Elected: 2006, 2nd term.
Born: May 24, 1949, Memphis .
Education: Vanderbilt U., B.A. 1971, U. of Memphis, J.D. 1973.
Elected office: Shelby Cnty. Comm., 1977-78, TN Senate, 1982-2006.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1974-2006.
The congressman from the 9th District is Steve Cohen, a Democrat elected in 2006. Cohen is a fourth-generation Memphian, the son of a psychiatrist. At age 5, Cohen was diagnosed with polio, an illness that would shift his focus from sports to politics. Cohen studied at Vanderbilt University and went on to law school at the University of Memphis. After graduation in 1973, he worked as a legal advisor for the Memphis Police Department and then started a law practice in 1978. He was elected to the Shelby County Commission and, in 1982, to a Memphis-based state Senate seat, where he served for the next 24 years. He became known as the father of the Tennessee State Lottery for his successful efforts in 2002 to pass a referendum repealing a lottery ban and for passing legislation that used the lottery revenue to fund college scholarships.
|Steve Cohen (D)||198,798||(88%)||($886,339)|
|Jake Ford (I)||11,003||(5%)|
|Dewey Clark (I)||10,047||(4%)|
|Mary Wright (I)||6,434||(3%)||($47,715)|
|Steve Cohen (D)||50,306||(79%)|
|Nikki Tinker (D)||11,817||(19%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (60%)
Cohen wanted to run for Congress in 1996 when 22-year Rep. Harold Ford announced his retirement, but he found his path to Washington blocked by the incumbent’s 26-year-old son, an African-American who secured the seat. Cohen, who is white and Jewish, expressed frustration over the inexperienced Ford’s strong performance in black precincts. But he got a second chance in 2006 when Ford ran unsuccessfully for Senate. As the only serious white contender among the 15 candidates who filed to run, Cohen faced considerable criticism from local black leaders, who publicly asserted that an African-American should represent the district. “For the first time in 30 years Memphis could be without African-American representation,” Democratic candidate Ron Redwing’s campaign told voters in an e-mail. Cohen’s supporters charged that another primary foe paid for a push poll that asked, “Are you more likely to vote for a born-again Christian or a Jew?” Cohen quipped that his staunchly liberal record would make people mistake him for a black woman. The district’s black leaders were unable to narrow the crowded field and the primary results splintered. Cohen won with 31%. Nikki Tinker, the former campaign manager for Ford Jr., finished second with 25%. The incumbent’s cousin, Joe Ford Jr., finished third with 12%.
The Democratic primary is typically the only election that matters in this solidly Democratic district, but Cohen faced a challenge in November from yet another Ford—Jake Ford, the incumbent’s younger brother, who ran as an independent candidate. Jake Ford was a high school dropout who had had a few scrapes with the law, but he had support from his father and other African-American leaders who opposed Cohen. He argued that he was in better sync with the community, noting that more than two-thirds of the primary vote went against Cohen. Cohen’s critics also suggested that Cohen, who is single and supports same-sex marriage, is gay (he has said that he is not). He won the general election with 60%, ending the Ford family’s 32-year hold on the district and becoming the only white member of Congress to represent a majority-black district. Cohen wanted to join the Congressional Black Caucus, but he backed off when CBC leaders made it clear he would not be allowed to join.
In his first term, Cohen worked to quickly secure his hold on the seat, knowing that he faced a near-certain primary challenge in 2008. Among his first moves was a resolution apologizing for slavery. While it seemed like a relatively harmless motion that easily passed the House on a voice vote, Cohen’s office was slammed with constituent calls charging the measure was a political ploy. It was called up for a vote just days before the August 2008 primary. Cohen also succeeded in naming a Memphis federal building and post offices after prominent African-Americans.
Winning a plum seat on the Judiciary Committee, Cohen was unabashed in his questioning of Bush administration officials and succeeded in getting Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller to acknowledge that the agency’s interrogation techniques, including use of water-boarding, a form of coercion that simulates drowning, “might not be appropriate.” On the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he opposed a bill favored by Chairman James Oberstar of Minnesota that could have subjected FedEx to worker strikes. Cohen also made himself a fixture on C-SPAN, which covers floor proceedings. In 2008, he ranked 10th among House members for face time on C-SPAN.
When Cohen was up for re-election in 2008, his race was his biggest obstacle. African-American leaders in the district coalesced around Tinker, who had come in second to Cohen two years earlier and who was back to challenge him in the Democratic primary. “He’s not black and he can’t represent me,” one minister told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I don’t care how people try to dress up, it always comes down to race and he can’t know what it’s like to be black.” A Tinker campaign ad charged that Cohen went into “our churches, clapping his hands and tapping his feet” but was the only congressman “who thought our kids shouldn’t be allowed to pray in school.” She got financial help from the Congressional Black Caucus and EMILY’s list, the women’s fundraising group. But prominent black leaders from outside the district, including Judiciary Chairman John Conyers of Michigan and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois made radio ads for Cohen and donated to his campaign. He financially outraised Tinker by more than 2-to-1.
A week before the election, Tinker aired a television ad highlighting a vote Cohen had cast in 2005 while he served on a Memphis development board. He had voted against removing a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early Ku Klux Klan leader, from Forrest Park on the University of Tennessee Medical Center campus. The ad juxtaposed a photo of Cohen with a hooded Klansman. Cohen defended his vote, citing the complexities that would result from moving the statue from the park, which also included Forrest’s grave, and he pointed out that several African-American leaders also opposed the relocation of the statue and grave. The August primary wasn’t even close. Cohen crushed Tinker, 79%-19%. Cohen faced three independent candidates in November and won with 88% of the vote.