Tinker files to take on Cohen again, setting up racially charged primary

Democrat Nikki Tinker, who finished second to freshman Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) in last year’s primary, has filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission, setting up a rematch with racial overtones.

Cohen is one of few white members ever to represent a majority-black district — a distinction he gained after winning a jam-packed 15-candidate primary to succeed then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) as the Democratic nominee in the Memphis district.

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Tinker, a black former campaign manager for Ford, has been very visible in the district since her loss last August. But until she filed her papers Friday, she had been mum about a repeat bid, and she didn’t raise any money in the first quarter of this cycle.

Cohen won 31 percent of the primary vote to top a field full of black candidates. But many expected he would face another challenge from the city’s black population.

If that community rallies around Tinker, instead of splitting its vote among several candidates like last time, it could spell trouble for Cohen. The district is about 60 percent black. Tinker won 25 percent of the vote, while three other black candidates finished with around 10 percent each.

Cohen said yesterday that he is very confident he would beat Tinker one-on-one. He pointed to the overwhelming advantage he won among black voters against a black independent candidate in the general election.

“I don’t see it as being close at all,” Cohen said. “I’m afraid Ms. Tinker is not aware of how far we’ve come in race relations — how far the entire community, but particularly the African-American community, has come in terms of judging somebody based on their efforts and their work and the content of their character, not the color of their skin.”

The black independent Cohen faced last year was Jake Ford, Harold’s brother, who has indicated he might run in the Democratic primary this year.

Jake Ford finished a distant second to Cohen with about 22 percent of the vote, slightly ahead of the GOP candidate. But his independent bid, in which he attempted to win as the only black candidate in the race, infuriated the party brass. He terminated his campaign committee in April.

Other Fords who could run include Joe Ford (D), a Shelby County commissioner and brother of former Rep. Harold Ford Sr. (D), and his son Joe Ford Jr. (D), who finished third in the primary last year after moving back to the district, say local Democratic sources.

Joe Ford Jr. would have to move back again from California, where he practices law.

Among other top primary finishers, attorney Ed Stanton is unlikely to run — he has also terminated his campaign committee — and former Shelby commissioner Julian Bolton is considered a possibility. Other candidates could emerge from this year’s Memphis mayoral race, which has relegated the congressional race to the back burner for the time being. Mayoral candidates such as four-term Mayor Willie Herenton are seen as possible congressional candidates if they lose.

“Everybody here is pretty much focused on the mayor’s race, for the most part,” said Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Matt Kuhn. “There really isn’t a whole lot of talk about the 9th district congressional race.”

Meanwhile, Cohen has continued to build on his service to the black community, hiring many black staffers and focusing on racial issues.

After initially saying he would try to become the first white member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Cohen backed off that pledge and said he and the CBC would “just be buddies.”

In the 2006 primary, Cohen won less than 20 percent of predominantly black precincts and more than 80 percent of mostly white ones, according to an analysis by the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Cohen acknowledged the 2008 campaign will likely again be divisive.

“In the last campaign, the only issues that were tossed out were basically my religion [Judaism], my race and my gender,” Cohen said. “That’s not what Memphis needs; that’s not what America needs.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said yesterday that it will support Cohen in the primary. “We have a long-standing policy of supporting incumbent members,” spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said.

Tinker led Cohen handily in fundraising last year with nearly $600,000 and was endorsed by EMILY’s List. She entered this cycle with less than $5,000 but no debt.

Cohen raised $43,000 in the first quarter and has $165,000 in cash on hand.

Tinker could not be reached this week in her office.