- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2008

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) | Steve Cohen, a white congressman from a mostly black district, faces his first re-election challenge in next month’s Democratic primary, and race is again at the heart of the fight.

But unabashed complaints that a white person cannot represent a majority black city have lessened. Now, his opponents focus on a more subtle call for “diversity” - in Congress and on Tennessee’s all-white congressional delegation.

“They’re trying to stay away from the racial part of it because they don’t want to go there, but when you boil it down, you can’t get away from it,” said Sidney Chism, a campaign adviser for Mr. Cohen’s top challenger, Nikki Tinker, a corporate lawyer who is black.

“When you’re talking about diversity, you’re talking about race also,” said Mr. Chism, a county commissioner and longtime activist in local political campaigns.

After Mr. Cohen’s 2006 victory, which followed a splintered primary vote among a dozen black candidates, critics complained loudly that Tennessee’s 9th District deserved a black representative in Washington. The district is 60 percent black and 35 percent white.

“That looked nasty nationwide,” said Larry Moore, who teaches a course on politics and business at the University of Memphis. “Nobody wants to be seen doing that again.”

With Barack Obama as the presumed Democratic nominee for president, a congressional campaign based on race would be hard to pull off, Mr. Moore said, and “could backfire with the Obama campaign.”

Mr. Cohen, 59, is the first white representative for the solidly Democratic 9th District in more than three decades. The district was previously represented by Harold Ford Sr., the state’s first black congressman, and his oldest son, Harold Ford Jr.

The elder Mr. Ford was sent to Washington in 1974 and retired in 1996. The younger Mr. Ford gave up the House seat in 2006 to run for the U.S. Senate.

Mr. Cohen is one of two white congressmen from majority black districts: the other being Rep. Robert A. Brady, Pennsylvania Democrat. But Mr. Cohen is alone in having followed a black predecessor into office.

Mr. Cohen, who is Jewish, has angered black ministers for supporting hate-crime protection for homosexuals and for opposing denominational prayers in the Tennessee Senate when he was a state lawmaker.

He spent 24 years in the state Senate, also representing a heavily black district. In Congress, he has voted consistently with liberal Democrats and been an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq.

“I would like for people to judge me on my record,” Mr. Cohen said during a campaign debate. Mr. Obama, he said, “has shown we’ve turned a corner in this country” and that people “judge him on the content of his character … not the color of his skin.”

In the Aug. 7 Democratic primary, which is tantamount to election, Mr. Cohen faces two main challengers, Ms. Tinker and state Rep. Joe Towns, both of whom are black, and two minor candidates.

Mr. Cohen won the 2006 primary with 31 percent of the vote, with Ms. Tinker, his closest opponent, coming in with 25 percent. The top four black candidates combined for 57 percent.

Ms. Tinker, the general counsel for Pinnacle Airlines and a former campaign aide of the younger Mr. Ford, has never held elected office and is tying her campaign to Mr. Obama’s call for change in Washington.

Her TV ads play up humble beginnings growing up in Alabama with a single mother and disabled grandmother. She argues that her campaign is not about race but adds that her supporters hunger for more racial diversity in Congress.

Of Tennessee’s nine House districts, “this is the only one where African-Americans have even enough courage to stand up and run,” she said during a televised debate. “I think they’re saying that with those nine seats, can’t we just have one?” she said, holding up nine fingers for emphasis.

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