Cohen on the CBC: 'We'll just be buddies'

Incoming Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said he will not try to join the Congressional Black Caucus as its first white member, despite having caused a stir early last year when he said he would to represent more effectively his majority-black district.

Cohen, who will represent the Memphis seat held by recent Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. — and, before that, by Harold Ford Sr. — said that despite his affection and admiration for many CBC members, “politically, it would be a mistake to pursue that.”

“I don’t think it’s necessary to have anything formal,” Cohen said. “Instead, we’ll just be buddies.”

The longtime state senator, who is white and Jewish, may still need to form strong bonds with high-profile black lawmakers in order to defend his seat in two years from an anticipated primary challenge, one Memphis political analyst said.

Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Memphis’s Rhodes College, noted the crowded 15-person primary Cohen faced in 2006, in which he was up against a number of prominent black Memphians. Though Cohen emerged with 31 percent of the vote and a majority of the black vote, Polhmann said he anticipates a stiffer challenge in 2008 from a candidate such as airline executive and former Ford Jr. campaign manager Nikki Tinker, who garnered 25 percent of the primary vote.

Though Tinker declined to comment, Pohlmann said she had included him on her Christmas card list this year and was said to have maintained EMILY’s List support after the group backed her in her primary run last year.

The district is solidly Democrat — Cohen won the general with 60 percent of the vote over Independent candidate Jake Ford, younger brother to Ford Jr., who finished with 22 percent to Republican candidate Mark White’s 18 percent — and solidly minority, with blacks comprising 60 percent, according to the 2000 Census.

Despite Cohen’s strong 2006 showing with black voters, Pohlmann cautioned that the freshman lawmaker still will have to prove himself to the city’s black community leaders.

Cohen’s first efforts in establishing that connection have been to make minority hires for his district and Washington offices a priority, bringing on Shirley Cooks, former chief of staff to Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), as his new chief of staff. Five of eight of Cohen’s district hires are minorities, Cohen said.

Jake Ford, who said this week that he is considering another run in 2008, said “the burden is on [Cohen] to represent the district,” and race considerations in hiring should not be a factor.

“I don’t think my dad or my brother consciously ever thought, ‘I’m going to hire this person because they’re black or because they’re white,’” Ford said. Cohen is the first congressman without the last name Ford to hold the seat since 1974 — Ford Sr. for 22 years and Ford Jr. for 10.

Pohlmann said minority hires and allies in the CBC can only help inoculate the liberal congressman-elect in 2008 when he will likely face a more formidable black opponent in a less crowded primary.

“I really think that this first reelection is critical,” Pohlmann said, adding that a head-to-head race against someone like Tinker “will be the purer test to the degree to which [Cohen] has been able to neutralize the race issue.

“It is an uphill battle for him, but I wouldn’t underestimate him, either.”

During his 24 years in the state Senate, Cohen was best known as the father of Tennessee’s lottery, designed to create a scholarship fund for in-state students, and for his liberal ideology and a legislative style that often ruffled the feathers of his colleagues.

When Cohen told a Washington reporter in early 2006 that he would try to join the CBC if elected, a number of black leaders in Memphis were dismayed and vocal in their anger.

Pohlmann said Cohen will need to distinguish himself to the people of Memphis, and given his track record as state senator, it’s not a stretch to assume that he will be among the higher-profile members of the incoming freshman class.

Cohen, who was recently named to the House Judiciary Committee by incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said he is still in the process of transition from Memphis to Washington. But he said he is not worried about those who might be lining up to make his Washington tenure a brief one.

“I’m not too concerned about any or all of them,” he said.