Almanac A members-only database of searchable profiles compiled and adapted from the Almanac of American Politics

Biography

Elected: 2006, 4th term.

Born: May 24, 1949, Memphis

Home: Memphis

Education: Vanderbilt U., B.A. 1971, U. of Memphis, J.D. 1973

Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1974-2006.

Ethnicity: White/Caucasian

Religion: Jewish

Family: single

Democrat Steve Cohen, elected in 2006, is one of the few white members of Congress representing a majority-minority district. He has easily fended off primary challenges from the district’s African-American majority by maintaining one of the House’s most liberal voting records and concentrating on issues of strong interest to his constituents.

Cohen is a fourth-generation Memphian and 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.

Cohen wanted to run for Congress in 1996 when 22-year veteran African-American Rep. Harold Ford, Sr., announced his retirement, but he found his path blocked by the incumbent’s 26-year-old son, who secured the seat. He got a second chance in 2006 when Ford, Jr., ran unsuccessfully for the 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. 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 the 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. 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 made an issue of the fact that he supports same-sex marriage. He won the general election with 60% of the vote, ending the Ford family’s 32-year hold on the 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 worked on bills to force radio broadcasters to pay money to performers whose music is played and on studying racial disparities in the criminal justice system. He got a measure into law in 2010 protecting authors and journalists from having foreign libel judgments honored in U.S. courts and another a year later to help members of the National Guard and Reserve obtain bankruptcy relief. He also introduced several unsuccessful amendments to reduce spending on the war in Afghanistan; one of them ultimately passed in July 2012. On the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Cohen opposed a bill that could have exposed FedEx to worker strikes. Cohen also made himself a fixture on C-SPAN, which covers floor proceedings.

When Cohen was up for reelection in 2008, his race was his biggest obstacle in the primary. African-American leaders in the district coalesced around Tinker, who had come in second to Cohen two years earlier. “He’s not black, and he can’t represent me,” one minister told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Tinker got financial help from the CBC 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 outraised Tinker by more than 2-to-1 and crushed her, 79%-19%. Cohen faced three independent candidates in November and won with 88% of the vote.

He drew another primary challenge in 2010 from Willie Herenton, Memphis’ first elected black mayor. But Cohen once again was ready—he snagged a rare written endorsement from Obama, a hugely popular figure in the district, as well as support from a dozen CBC members. He trounced Herenton, 79%-21%, in the August primary and again sailed to reelection. Two years later, his primary challenger was Memphis School Board member and Memphis Urban League CEO Tomeka Hart. But The Cook Political Report observed that her campaign “seems to be focusing more on promoting her brand than giving voters a reason to replace Cohen,” and the incumbent won 89%-11% before again coasting in the general election.

Cohen’s personal life became a national story in February 2013 when he sent, and then quickly deleted, seemingly flirtatious tweets to a woman. He initially said the woman was a daughter of a family friend but later acknowledged to NBC News that she actually was his daughter, whom he had learned about just three years earlier. “I Googled her mother, found out she had a child, and the math looked pretty accurate,” he recalled. “The mom told me we had a lot of catching up to do.” A DNA test later showed the woman was not his daughter.

Office Contact Information

MAIN OFFICE

(202) 225-3265

(202) 225-5663

RHOB- Rayburn House Office Building Room 2404
Washington, DC 20515-4209

MAIN OFFICE

(202) 225-3265

(202) 225-5663

RHOB- Rayburn House Office Building Room 2404
Washington, DC 20515-4209

DISTRICT OFFICE

(901) 544-4131

(901) 544-4329

The Clifford Davis / Odell Horton Federal Building Suite 369
Memphis, TN 38103-1822

DISTRICT OFFICE

(901) 544-4131

(901) 544-4329

The Clifford Davis / Odell Horton Federal Building Suite 369
Memphis, TN 38103-1822

Staff

Sort by: Interest Name Title

Abortion

Matthew Weisman
Legislative Director

Acquisitions

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Aerospace

Michael Eisenstatt
Communications Director

Agriculture

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Animal Rights

Marilyn Dillihay
Chief of Staff

Appropriations

Matthew Weisman
Legislative Director

Arts

Marilyn Dillihay
Chief of Staff

Banking

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Budget

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Campaign

Marilyn Dillihay
Chief of Staff

Commerce

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Susan Sowell
Scheduler; Executive Assistant

Consumers

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Crime

Matthew Weisman
Legislative Director

Jeremy Jordan
Constituent Services Representative

Disability

Willie Henry
Deputy District Director

Economics

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Education

Patrick Cassidy
Scheduler; Legislative Aide

Jeremy Jordan
Constituent Services Representative

Family

William Connor
Legislative Assistant

Finance

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Foreign

Marilyn Dillihay
Chief of Staff

William Connor
Legislative Assistant

Govt Ops

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Susan Sowell
Scheduler; Executive Assistant

Linda Archer
Casework Manager

Grants

Rick Maynard
Constituent Services Aide

Health

Michael Eisenstatt
Communications Director

Homeland Security

William Connor
Legislative Assistant

Housing

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Human Rights

Marilyn Dillihay
Chief of Staff

Matthew Weisman
Legislative Director

Immigration

Michael Eisenstatt
Communications Director

Linda Archer
Casework Manager

Insurance

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Intelligence

William Connor
Legislative Assistant

Internet

Matthew Weisman
Legislative Director

Judiciary

Matthew Weisman
Legislative Director

Jeremy Jordan
Constituent Services Representative

Medicare

Michael Eisenstatt
Communications Director

Willie Henry
Deputy District Director

Military

William Connor
Legislative Assistant

Marzie Thomas
District Director

Linda Archer
Casework Manager

Minorities

Marilyn Dillihay
Chief of Staff

Native Americans

Marilyn Dillihay
Chief of Staff

Regulation

Matthew Weisman
Legislative Director

Science

Michael Eisenstatt
Communications Director

Small Business

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Social Security

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Linda Archer
Casework Manager

Tax

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Technology

Michael Eisenstatt
Communications Director

Telecommunications

Matthew Weisman
Legislative Director

Trade

Marilyn Dillihay
Chief of Staff

William Connor
Legislative Assistant

Transportation

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Urban Affairs

Michael Fulton
Senior Legislative Assistant

Veterans

William Connor
Legislative Assistant

Marzie Thomas
District Director

Jonathan Donald
Staff Assistant

Jeremy Jordan
Constituent Services Representative

Election Results

2012 GENERAL
Steve Cohen
Votes: 188,422
Percent: 75.07%
George Flinn
Votes: 59,742
Percent: 23.8%
2012 PRIMARY
Steve Cohen
Votes: 49,585
Percent: 89.3%
Tomeka Hart
Votes: 5,944
Percent: 10.7%
2010 GENERAL
Steve Cohen
Votes: 99,827
Percent: 74.0%
Charlotte Bergmann
Votes: 33,879
Percent: 25.11%
2010 PRIMARY
Steve Cohen
Votes: 63,402
Percent: 78.71%
Willie Herenton
Votes: 17,153
Percent: 21.29%
2008 GENERAL
Steve Cohen
Votes: 198,798
Percent: 87.85%
2008 PRIMARY
Steve Cohen
Votes: 50,306
Percent: 79.36%
Nikki Tinker
Votes: 11,817
Percent: 18.64%
Prior Winning Percentages
2010 (74%), 2008 (88%), 2006 (60%)

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