In 1996, Steve Cohen decided to run for the Congressional seat of Harold Ford, Sr. It was not an auspicious time to run. The incumbent, Harold Ford, Sr., had recently defeated the Reagan/Bush justice Department's prosecution on trumped up bank fraud charges. The conservative white political establishment in Tennessee had no use for Ford, the first African-American to represent Tennessee in Congress. Ford was looking to retire and pass the seat to his son, Junior. Junior was Steve's opponent for the Democratic nomination in this heavily black, heavily Protestant district. Steven Cohen is white and Jewish.
At that time, Steve had been a state legislator for 14 years. Prior to that, he had served as a county commissioner and a judge. He was a delegate to two Democratic National Conventions. He was a graduate of Vanderbilt and U. Memphis Law School. His opponent, Junior, was 26 at the time and had done little more than clear the Constitutional age requirement. But his name was Ford, so Junior won that nomination in a landslide. At the end of that run, Steve Cohen said this:
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.
Steve was wrong. It mattered a lot what he did. Over the next ten years, Steve earned the respect of his community by consistently sticking up for his district in the state Senate. In 2006, Junior decided to run for the U.S. Senate and his younger brother Jake decided to run for the family House seat. Jake was fully supported by Senior, who became a prominent lobbyist. Jake had the support of the same list of prominent ministers that had stuck with Senior through tough times. Steve was confronted with Antisemitism and bigotry. Yet, Steve won. He won the primary. He went on to win the general election despite the Ford family putting Jake on the independent sore-loser line. Steve became the first Jewish representative from Tennessee, representing a district overwhelmingly black and Protestant. It mattered a great deal what Steve did.
And it still does. Steve has faced down two primary challenges for his seat based wholly on his race or his religion. Here is what his most recent opponent, former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, said about his motivations for running against the good Democrat:
Willie Herenton is accusing white two-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of "trying to act black." He tells voters in this majority-black city that they "need to come off that Cohen plantation and get on the Herenton freedom train."
Disgusting. His 2008 primary opponent, former Harold Ford, Jr. aide Nikki Tinker, ran a campaign so offensive I don't even want to repeat it.
The Antiemitism and bigotry openly leveled at him, however, has been soundly rejected by the people. Twice. Twice, the race hucksters have tried to game the people into having someone represent them because of skin color, rather than able representation on the merits. Both times they have lost big time and the people of Memphis should be proud of that.
The Congressional Black Caucus turned Steve down for membership because of his race, a blight on that group that deserves ridicule and derision. And correction. Why should the CBC practice what black voters reject? Since the CBC endorsed Cohen in this election and he has won, again, it seems only fitting that they invite him to join. It isn't about them, but the people they represent. Either the CBC is a private club for black members of Congress, or it is a caucus representing black constituents. If it's the latter, Steve Cohen should be invited to join immediately.