Steve Cohen’s ugly primary challenge, Take Two

STEVE COHEN’S UGLY PRIMARY CHALLENGE, TAKE TWO…. When Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) was elected to Congress in November 2006, it was rather unusual. There was a four-way contest in a predominantly African-American, Memphis-area congressional district; the top candidates generally split the black vote; and Cohen, who is white and Jewish, won a tough primary with just over 30% of the vote. He won easily in the general election.

In 2008, Nikki Tinker launched a primary campaign against Cohen, and launched some of the ugliest, race-based smears in recent memory. Tinker, who is Christian and African American, targeted Cohen’s religion and even tried to link Cohen to the KKK in a television ad.

Several community leaders denounced Tinker’s vicious, baseless attacks, and local voters were repulsed — Cohen won the primary by 60 points.

Two years later, we’re unfortunately seeing a replay.

A Congressional race in Tennessee has become freighted with racial overtones almost a year before the election, with a prominent black politician saying the white incumbent cannot properly represent black voters.

The black candidate, former Mayor Willie W. Herenton of Memphis, has argued that Tennessee needs a black voice in its currently all-white delegation. He is running a blistering campaign against Representative Steve Cohen, a fellow Democrat with a precarious hold on the majority black district.

“To know Steve Cohen is to know that he really does not think very much of African-Americans,” Mr. Herenton said in a recent radio interview on KWAM. “He’s played the black community well.”

Herenton’s campaign manager, a black county commissioner, told the NYT, “This seat was set aside for people who look like me. It wasn’t set aside for a Jew or a Christian. It was set aside so that blacks could have representation.”

As Adam Serwer explained this morning, the Herenton’s campaign’s central argument is both straightforward and wrong: a white person is necessarily unqualified to represent black people.

It’s fortunate for President Obama that most Americans didn’t decide the reverse last year.

It just plainly isn’t true. There’s no evidence that a black representative would, by virtue of his background, do a better job than Cohen in looking out for his constituents’ interests. Black representation in Congress certainly is important, but it’s actually a secondary issue to black people choosing their own representatives. The point is for black people to have a voice in Congress — for the mostly African American voters of TN-09, that voice has been Steve Cohen. It may well be again.

Herenton has been a fairly successful mayor of one of Tennessee’s largest cities. He can very easily run a campaign highlighting his record and accomplishment. To target his opponent’s race is cheap and unnecessary, and antithetical to Democratic Party politics.