Memphis Commercial Appeal, TN
July 20 2008
Steve Cohen runs on his record
He has a strong record in his first term as a member of Congress, but
as a freshman he still lacks much clout
By Bartholomew Sullivan (Contact), Memphis Commercial Appeal
Sunday, July 20, 2008
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls him the "conscience" of the 110th
Congress. He’s been endorsed by his House Judiciary Committee
chairman, John Conyers. Rep. Maxine Waters, the liberal California
firebrand, calls him "brother."
Walking with him in the hallways of Congress, where he’s stopped
repeatedly no matter how fast he’s moving to make a vote, it’s clear
that Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., has made a powerful impression in his
first term. YouTube him and you’ll find video clips of dozens of
Cohen’s floor and committee speeches about the Memphis Tigers
basketball team, Stax records, Guantanamo and the war. When he asked
Dick Cheney’s chief of staff recently if the vice president was a
"barnacle," the riposte lit up the blogosphere.
But beyond witty repartee, how effective has the unabashedly liberal
and anti-war Cohen been for his constituents in Memphis’ 9th
Congressional District? Some, like former NAACP national executive
director Benjamin L. Hooks, see a solid voting record consistent with
a civil rights agenda. Hooks’ view is upheld by the national NAACP’s
"report card" on 25 Cohen votes of interest to its members, where he
scores a 96 percent. (Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican who
represents West Tennessee’s 7th District, by contrast, scores 28
"I think he’s done a good job," Hooks said.
Others, who point to Cohen’s efforts to rename the Downtown federal
building and the Third Street post office for prominent
African-Americans and his call for an official U.S. apology for
slavery and Jim Crow laws, say he’s pandering to black voters in the
majority African-American district.
What’s indisputable is that he’s more effective than his predecessor,
Harold Ford Jr., at least in part because the Democrats were never in
the majority during Ford’s 10 years in the House and Democratic
initiatives stalled. Cohen’s also effective in an important
philosophical way because he’s a solid liberal, says Glen Ford, the
editor of BlackAgendaReport, who is not related to the former
"He’s more effective because his votes are more in line with the
historical progressiveness of the Congressional Black Caucus," says
Glen Ford, who has written that it is not in the interests of black
voters in the 9th District to vote for either of the two black
candidates challenging Cohen in the Aug. 7 Democratic primary, Nikki
Tinker and state Rep. Joe Towns Jr..
Ford says Tinker’s claim to be a civil rights lawyer, when she is
general counsel to an airline in a right-to-work state, assumes the
electorate is too unsophisticated to see it’s being "hoodwinked." A
progressive academic, Ford was a vocal critic of Harold Ford Jr., whom
he called "George Bush’s favorite black congressperson."
For David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Washington-based
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a leading think tank
on black issues, Cohen isn’t in as favorable a position for
re-election as he was in 2006, when he faced a longer list of less
well-known black opponents on the 9th District ballot. But Bositis
noted that the advantages of incumbency are obvious, and Cohen
regularly reminds his constituents about federal grants flowing to
Memphis International Airport, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,
all the local colleges and city schools, and the Memphis Area Transit
But he is also a freshman, Bositis noted, meaning he has no seniority
or power. And Bositis also recalled as "something of an embarrassment"
Cohen’s early attempt to join the Congressional Black Caucus. On the
national stage, Bositis said, Travis W. Childers, the newly elected
Democrat from what was supposed to be a dark-red GOP House district in
North Mississippi, is probably better known at the moment.
But that’s certainly not because Cohen is hiding. Through the middle
of last week, Cohen had made 101 speaking appearances on the House
floor, ranking him 10th of 435 members for face time on C-SPAN. For
good measure, he went on Comedy Central’s "The Colbert Report" to
explain to Stephen Colbert that he votes like a black woman.
Cohen, part of the freshman class that made Pelosi the House speaker
after the 2006 elections, was immediately rewarded with a seat on the
Judiciary Committee, where he’s conducted high-profile and news-making
interrogations of the likes of former attorney general Alberto
Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller, among many others. He got
Mueller to acknowledge that the FBI had advised other federal agencies
that their interrogation techniques "might not be appropriate." He
also got his second choice of committee assignments, on Transportation
and Infrastructure, where he can influence airport and mass transit
In that post, he bucked his own committee chairman, James Oberstar,
D-Minn., over a bill that would have subjected FedEx Express, a
division of the largest employer in Cohen’s district, to the
jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Act and the possibility
of crippling local strikes.
"I hate to be against my chairman and I hate to be against my friends
in labor … but if their memories are that good, they’ll remember
when I’ve been with them in the past," Cohen said at a hearing. "The
fact is that, on this issue, Federal Express is right."
Cohen predicted Oberstar would have a long memory of the
disloyalty. Instead, Oberstar praised him in public for his
integrity. Jerry Lee, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO, said Cohen
has a 96 percent rating on labor issues and is often "more aware of
our issues than we are."
Pelosi, in a statement last week, again called Cohen the "conscience
of the freshman class," reciting a string of his votes, including ones
increasing the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits. She
added: "Congressman Cohen is a powerful voice for a new direction."
As a legislator, in addition to renaming buildings, Cohen has
introduced a bill to make it a federal crime to transport a corpse
across state lines to prevent its use as evidence, in memory of
murdered code inspector Mickey Wright; sponsored and got passed a bill
that helps coordinate and minimize the transport of toxic hazardous
materials; and got a $4 million earmark for the University of
Tennessee’s bio-containment lab after backing U.S. Rep. John Murtha,
D-Pa., for the No. 2 House leadership post.
In addition, he has sponsored a measure that would prevent foreign
libel judgments from being honored by U.S. courts; commissioned a
study on homelessness; worked with U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., to
increase funding for historically black colleges; and worked with
District of Columbia delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton on an urban search
and rescue first-responders bill.
On the other side of the House aisle, Tennessee Republican Marsha
Blackburn said Cohen is a pleasure to work with. "We don’t often find
ourselves on the same side of the issues, but we are a unified force
to be reckoned with when it comes to assuring that the needs of Shelby
County are met," she said.
In an interview, Cohen said his biggest accomplishment in 18 months on
the job has been building those kinds of relationships. On policy
issues, Cohen says support for a resolution to condemn Turkey for the
Armenian genocide almost a century ago began to unravel after he asked
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, about it and the
general said the measure would endanger U.S. troops. Among his
constituent services, Cohen has intervened to prevent a doctor at
St. Jude from being deported to Nigeria.
Cohen, 59, came to Washington an opponent of the Iraq war and quickly
joined both the Progressive and Out of Iraq caucuses. He visited Iraq
in October 2007 on a fact-finding trip and returned to say that Prime
Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s claim that the sectarian war had ended
"Congressman Cohen has been one of the anti-war movement’s most
steadfast allies in ending this bloody occupation," Mid-South Peace
and Justice Center director Jacob Flowers said last week. "He has
consistently voted against funding for the war since taking office and
he’s one of the most accessible elected officials that we work with."
The only Iraq funding bills he has voted for contained timetables for
troop withdrawals, and were vetoed by President Bush.
And it’s true that Cohen is accessible. Reporters can call him on his
cell phone or e-mail him and he quickly responds. His senior office
staff is made up of loyalists who worked for him as a state senator in
Nashville and know Memphis. He hired as chief of staff Shirley Cooks,
sister of singer and activist Harry Belafonte, who has worked on the
Hill for decades. In Memphis, his eyes and ears are Randy Wade, a
former candidate for sheriff. His receptionist in Washington is a
Ridgeway High and Yale graduate.
No stranger to controversy and something of a publicity hound, Cohen
returned from the district in August 2007 to take the House floor and
denounce "a group of right-wing, evangelical Republicans, national in
scope," for misleading pastors in his district with misinformation
about a hate crimes bill he’d voted on months earlier. The bill would
extend federal jurisdiction to crimes of violence motivated by the
race, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation of the victim, but
the fliers left on church-goers’ windshields said it would tie the
hands of ministers preaching against homosexuality.
As ridiculous as such a claim appeared to anyone familiar with the
First Amendment, Cohen took the charge seriously and confronted
it. Some saw the resulting controversy as the opening salvo in an
effort to make the 2008 election in the 9th District a referendum on
Cohen’s race and Jewish religion. At a heated forum provided by the
Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association, he explained how the
ministers were being manipulated. He noted that Harold Ford Jr. had
repeatedly been a co-sponsor of similar hate crimes legislation and
had never drawn criticism. Some in the audience shouted him down.
Cohen also brought Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a black Democrat from
Missouri representing a mostly white district in Kansas City, to argue
his case before 9th District audiences. Conyers also appeared at a
Memphis town hall meeting for Cohen.
The race and religion issue appeared to quiet down until Rev. George
Brooks, who lives outside the 9th District in Murfreesboro, began
circulating a flier in February stating "Steve Cohen and the Jews Hate
Jesus." It was the first in a series of similar missives now filling a
folder in Cohen’s Longworth building office.
Cohen said shortly after he was sworn in that he’d asked Pelosi to
help him derail any future campaign endorsement in the 9th District by
the pro-abortion rights fundraising juggernaut known as EMILY’s
List. The group, which supports only female candidates, had encouraged
its members to back Tinker’s second-place run against Cohen in
2006. The group, whose acronym stands for "Early Money Is Like Yeast,"
was responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations,
despite complaints from women’s-issue voters that Tinker’s views on
reproductive rights were unclear while Cohen’s were consistent and
longstanding. Tinker told The Commercial Appeal editorial board last
week she is pro-choice.
She got the EMILY’s List endorsement in March 2006, when the resulting
contributions really were early money. This year, the group waited
until late May to endorse Tinker again.
Some speculated that the group would have stayed on the sidelines in
this year’s race but for Cohen’s occasional difficulty buttoning his
lip. A Barack Obama supporter before the Tennessee presidential
primary, he drew accusations of misogyny when he compared Hillary
Clinton to the knife-wielding Glenn Close character in the movie
"Fatal Attraction." Cohen quickly apologized.
Asked if the quip had prompted the late endorsement, EMILY’s List
political director Jonathan Parkers said: "No, Nikki Tinker is the
reason we chose to get in this race. Our mission is to help more women
get elected to office, and with her running a strong campaign and
earning impressive grass-roots support in Memphis, we decided to
In a televised debate last week, Tinker was unable to name a single
issue on which she differed with Cohen’s voting record and Towns was
vague about his difference with Cohen on one bill dealing with labor
As of last week, Cohen had missed just 16 of 1,671 votes, one of the
best records in the 110th Congress. Even so, he had excuses for most
of those absences: He was a pallbearer at restaurateur Thomas Boggs’
funeral in May, for example, and in March his flight to Washington was
delayed by mechanical problems.
It’s clear Cohen loves the job and takes advantage of some of its
perks. A music nut, Cohen got to hang out with Paul Simon and Art
Garfunkel, Tony Bennett, Stevie Wonder and Carole King at various
events. He and his girlfriend, Regina Whitley, went to Vanity Fair’s
A-list party following the White House Correspondents Association
dinner, guests of columnist Christopher Hitchens.
If elected to a second term, Cohen says, he wants to re-establish
parole in the federal justice system; get more funding for medical
research; get the COPS bill for local police passed; and obtain more
funding to upgrade and expand the emergency rooms of public hospitals
in anticipation of natural or man-made disasters.
But first and foremost, he wants to be instrumental in ending the war
Bartholomew Sullivan is The Commercial Appeal’s Washington
correspondent. Contact him at (202) 408-2726.