- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2008

MEMPHISSteve Cohen may be the unlikeliest freshman in Congress. He supports gun rights and capital punishment, as any successful congressman would in this conservative corner of Tennessee.

But he’s also for gay marriage and medical marijuana. He tried to restrict the president’s conduct of the war in Iraq. He sponsored a congressional resolution to apologize for slavery. He’s a white man representing a district that’s mostly black.

Not only all that, he’s a Jew. Therein lies a remarkably ugly tale of raw racial politics that everyone here expects to get uglier with the approach of the Aug. 5 Democratic primary.

“He’s not black and he can’t represent me,” said one of several black pastors who are unabashedly playing the race card in support of Mr. Cohen’s major opponent. “That’s just the bottom line.”

Mr. Cohen is not bereft of black friends. After narrowly winning the Democratic primary two years ago, finishing first in a field of 14 candidates, he was elected with 60 percent of the vote. More than half of those votes were black votes. He was endorsed by the black mayors of Memphis (heavily black) and surrounding Shelby County (barely majority white). Nevertheless, race is what all voters talk about this time.

“It’s a chink in my armor,” he says. “I’m always going to be white. I don’t always have to be Jewish, but I am, and I will be.”

He’s counting on Barack Obama, who has had preacher trouble himself, to help in November with his coat-tails. “Obama is showing us that Americans have gotten beyond race,” says Mr. Cohen, who endorsed the senator months ago. “He’s gotten a good number of Caucasian votes, so I think we’re making advances.”

Advances made for sure, but if voters have “gotten beyond race” you might not know it in Memphis, whose once-mellow Old South gentility has given way to a mostly respectful but tense stand-off between blacks, who dominate the politics, and whites, who control the local economy and the cultural institutions. Good manners, still important to Southerners of all hues, survive in personal relationships, ameliorating the tension. But there’s general agreement that the congressional race could change that.

Earlier this year a black preacher in a town 250 miles distant circulated a handbill in Memphis describing Mr. Cohen as “a Jesus-hater.” The handbill was headlined “Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen and the Jews HATE Jesus.” Then it got nasty. “Black leaders” in Memphis were encouraged to “see to it that one and ONLY one black Christian faces this opponent of Christ and Christianity in the 2008 election.”

The Anti-Defamation League quickly denounced the handbill as inciting tension between blacks and Jews. Mr. Cohen’s opponent let it ride. Nikki Tinker, an executive with Pinnacle Airlines, a Memphis-based regional carrier, ran second two years ago and she’s trying again this year. “Of course, we wouldn’t have anything to do with that,” her spokesman said. “We would be interested in denouncing that sort of nonsense, but, again, we haven’t seen it.” The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper, chided Miss Tinker’s reluctance and further accused the city’s Black Baptist Ministerial Association of inciting racial tension when it scolded Mr. Cohen for his writing protection for gays into federal hate-crime legislation.

Memphis is arguably the only place in these parts where he could be elected. A Baptist deacon with his record and political philosophy wouldn’t make it, either. He’s an authentic liberal on most hot-button issues. But the ugly attack on his religion surprised a lot of people here.

Though the Jewish community is relatively small, it has exerted an influence well beyond its numbers. Jews have prospered. Abe Plough, an itinerant peddler, settled in Memphis early in the last century and built Plough-Schering into one of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical companies. The Belz family restored the iconic Peabody Hotel and nursed a boarded-up downtown to relative health, with a new baseball park and a basketball arena. Memphis thought it had captured Mr. Obama’s dream. There may be a lesson here for him, too.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

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