Steve Cohen, a two-term white congressman from a mostly black House district, faces a bruising Democratic primary next year and race again will likely be at the center of the campaign.
Willie Herenton, the first elected black mayor of Memphis, recently filed with the Federal Election Commissionto run for Cohen’s 9th District House seat. Cohen has shrugged off black challengers before, but none with the political savvy and combative style of the 6-foot-6 mayor — a former Golden Gloves boxer who doesn’t shrink easily from a fight.
Now mayor longer than any predecessor, Herenton, 69, first won office in 1992 by beating a popular white incumbent by 142 votes in one of the closest mayoral elections in Memphis history. He has faced little serious re-election opposition since and is now in his fifth four-year term.
Cohen, 60, is one of just two white members of Congress representing predominantly black districts and the only one to follow an African-American into office. He is the first white congressman from Memphis since 1974 and the only Jewish member of Tennessee’s congressional delegation.
Voters in the August 2010 Democratic primary will face a sensitive question that has dogged Cohen since his first House election in 2006: Should Tennessee’s only majority black district have a black representative in Washington?
“I think all along, Steve Cohen has known that’s his vulnerability,” said political scientist Marcus Pohlmann atRhodes College of Memphis. “It’s not so much that he’s disliked because he’s white, but he’s running in a district that was created to elect an African-American.”
In the 9th District, which is 60 percent black and 35 percent white, the Democratic primary is tantamount to election. No Republican has been elected since 1972.
In 2006, Cohen led a 15-candidate Democratic primary with 31 percent of the vote, with the four top black candidates combining for 57 percent. In the 2008 primary, he trounced a black lawyer who campaigned heavily on race and produced a TV ad featuring a picture of Cohen and a photo of a hooded Ku Klux Klansman. Cohen breezed through the general elections with only weak Republican and independent opposition.
But Herenton is seen as his most formidable challenger yet.
A talented boxer who grew up poor in a racially segregated city, Herenton still stays in trim physical shape and easily mixes it up verbally with his critics — whether city council members, political foes or local journalists.
Herenton has also taken on federal prosecutors he accuses of trying to help his political enemies.
According to witnesses who have appeared before a federal grand jury now in session, prosecutors have asked about some $90,000 Herenton made in a land deal and $50,000 he reportedly collected from an annual Christmas party financed by well-heeled supporters.
Cohen, a lawyer, spent 24 years in the state Senate earning a reputation as a civil rights advocate and champion of minority causes. He has won high marks in Congress from minority and liberal groups.
Both men have long public records but Herenton may have “deeper roots” among African-American voters, said David Bositis, a senior researcher with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.
“I would make him the favorite, even though Cohen is the incumbent,” Bositis said, noting Cohen has not faced “topflight opposition” before.
Herenton didn’t respond to a request to be interviewed.
But he recently wrote in The Commercial Appeal newspaper that he wants to go to Congress because attacking urban problems will be a priority with President Barack Obama‘s administration.
The congressional election should focus on “pressing and important issues,” Herenton wrote. “However, it remains a fact that the 9th Congressional District provides the only real opportunity to elect a qualified African-American to the all-white 11-member delegation representing Tennessee in Washington.”
From Washington, Cohen said he wasn’t overly worried about Herenton.
“As long as I perform for the 9th District and the 9th District likes what I do, it doesn’t really matter who runs against me,” he said. “Working with people is what’s important up here … I’ve got friends and I know how to do it.”