Posted on June 18, 2009

White US Rep. in Black Tenn. District Faces Fight

Woody Baird, AP, June 18, 2009

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 Commission to 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 at Rhodes 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.