apr2007Main Street Journal
April 2007
pp. 8-10

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen tells reporters he’s “not too concerned” about his potential rivals in next year’s Democratic primary. And though Cohen’s staff say the freshman U.S. congressman isn’t worrying about his chances for reelection, it’s quite clear that he’s working overtime to shore up support among African Americans, who make up about 60% of the electorate in Tennessee’s 9th District.

To that end, Cohen has introduced four bills with a racial focus (including a resolution apologizing for slavery), hired minorities for five out of eight district office positions, attempted to become the first Caucasian to join the Congressional Black Caucus, and brought in U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) as a surrogate to field the majority of constituents’ questions at Cohen’s first town hall meeting.

So why is Cohen so eager to please?

There is little question Cohen is already running for reelection, for a seat he was just sworn into in January. One only needs to visit Cohen’s campaign website, which was updated to read 2008 not one month into his first term. Hearing this, one Cohen supporter rushed to defend the switch as “website maintenance,” as if it were merely a routine operation, indicative of nothing. Such obvious spin would fit nicely among a collection of phrases such as “wardrobe malfunction” and “strategic redeployment.”

While it’s generally accepted that House campaigns have become continuous operations where the importance of fundraising meets or even surpasses that of actually representing and legislating, Cohen is uncommonly transparent with his intentions, making them known even earlier than the average incumbent.

Despite his assertions to the contrary, Cohen knows he has a tough hill to climb, especially if he is to face the “consensus candidate” many expect this time around – a consensus black candidate, that is.

In the 2006 primary, Cohen benefited from running against an unusually large field of candidates, most of whom were black. But Cohen won with only about 30% of the total; meaning for every voter he attracted, more than two others picked someone else. If just those candidates taking less than 3% of the vote had dropped out, there’s a decent chance one of the top challengers would have overtaken him.

And while Cohen easily walked away with the general election, “Independent Democrat” Jake Ford’s campaign may have exposed some black Democrats’ racial hang-ups, with Ford drawing 14,000 more votes than Cohen had received in the primary.

A recent article in Roll Call quotes Shelby County Democratic Chairman Matt Kuhn as saying Cohen is “obviously trying to insulate himself from any challenge” this time around. It seems he has plenty more work to do, as all but one of Cohen’s biggest challengers have signaled interest. Then again, if everyone runs again, perhaps history will repeat itself, and Cohen will once again enjoy a plurality of the vote.

Short of that, Cohen will have to convince black Democrats that he is an adequate representative and advocate, despite his skin color.

That’s probably part of the reason why Cohen ignored the advice of Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel and sat down recently for an interview with Steve Colbert of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

Though The Memphis Flyer labeled Rep. Cohen “a brave man indeed” for appearing on the show, it should be clear that very little courage is required for a liberal politician to appear with a comedian whose shtick is to play the conservative straw man.

Colbert used the segment to praise Cohen’s ethics, applaud his work with the lottery scholarships and to ask if the congressman was, indeed, “a black woman,” since he claims to vote like one.

Brave? You could say it was the debate equivalent of Herenton vs. Frazier, but that’d be an insult to Frazier.

As if scripted, Colbert played up Cohen’s black appeal several times, even introducing him mockingly as a “proud Nubian son of Africa” and “soul brother.”

Such is the exact impression Cohen needs to convey if he’s to win a second term. After all, Cohen is all too aware of the challenges before him.

Running for the same seat in 1996, Cohen lost to Harold Ford, Jr., after which he said, “It is impossible for a person who is not African American to get a large vote in the African American community . . . against a substantial candidate . . . the fact is, I am white, and it doesn’t seem to matter what you do.”

Only time will tell if incumbency, a host of challengers, a good deal of pandering, or some combination of these will make the impossible possible once again.