MEMPHIS, Tenn. — President Barack Obama said Tuesday he is endorsing the white incumbent for Congress in a majority black district in west Tennessee.
Two-term U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen faces an Aug. 5 Democratic primary against former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton.
Herenton, who served 18 years as Memphis’ first elected black mayor, is making race an issue in the contest, saying Tennessee needs just one African-American congressman. The state’s nine House members and two U.S. senators are white.
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The district roughly follows the borders of Memphis, which is 60 percent black. The Democratic primary winner will be the heavy favorite to take the seat.
Cohen backed Obama during his presidential run and voted for the health care law passed earlier this year. He has used Obama’s election to support his argument that race should no longer be a major factor for voters.
In a statement Tuesday, Obama called Cohen a proven leader and a strong voice for Tennessee.
“Together, we passed historic health care reform and together we’re continuing the fight to renew our economy and bring jobs back to the American people,” Obama said. “I am proud to stand with Steve and support his re-election to Congress.”
Cohen, who opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he looks forward to continuing to work closely with Obama.
“I was inspired by President John F. Kennedy to enter into politics to make a difference in my community and my country,” Cohen said. “Like President Kennedy, President Barack Obama inspires a new generation to do the same.”
A former school superintendent, Herenton is the clear underdog in the race, with Cohen holding a huge fundraising advantage. But Herenton has never lost a political contest and is credited with improving Memphis’ economy and its schools.
Herenton resigned as mayor last year to run against Cohen. He had no immediate comment on Obama’s endorsement but scheduled a news conference for Tuesday afternoon.
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