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congressman on the ropes with constituents in black
Memphis district

congressman on the ropes with constituents in black
Memphis district

When Steve Cohen, a white man, was elected last year to represent mostly black Memphis in Congress, it was seen as a sign that racial divisions were fading in this Southern city.

But less than a year later, Cohen is facing a movement led by black pastors and political activists to defeat him in 2008 and send a black representative to Washington instead.

''He's not black, and he can't represent me. That's the bottom line,'' the Reverend Robert Poindexter told a local newspaper after a meeting last week of the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association at which Cohen was jeered and booed.

The hostile reception caught Cohen off guard and foreshadowed the challenge he is almost certain to face next year in his first bid for reelection.

''If you can get him on the wrong side of the black church, he's got an uphill battle,'' said Larry Moore, a University of Memphis professor who teaches a course on how politics affects business. ''It's taken for granted that we're going to have a black congressman again. That's what people are saying.''

Cohen, who is also Tennessee's only Jewish member of Congress, is one of two white congressmen from majority black districts. The other is Rep. Robert Brady of Pennsylvania. But Cohen is alone in having followed a black representative.

In 2006, Cohen won a crowded Democratic primary--the Democratic nomination is tantamount to election in Memphis--when the black vote splintered. He got slightly more than 30% of the vote, while four black opponents shared almost 60%.

''A lot of people are saying his election was a fluke, anyway,'' Moore said.

Cohen's closest opponent in the Democratic primary was Nikki Tinker, a lawyer for Pinnacle Airlines who is billed by supporters as the black ''consensus candidate'' to challenge Cohen for the nomination next summer.

''There's no reason to have a 'consensus candidate' against me but for my race,'' said Cohen, 58, who built a record as a civil rights champion in 24 years in the state senate. ''It's not based on my record. It's based on the fact that I'm white.''

Tinker did not return calls for comment but issued a statement accusing Cohen of ''attempting to lay his failure to have a positive and constructive dialogue with the constituents at my feet.''

Black preachers have sharply criticized Cohen's vote in favor of a federal hate-crime bill that protects gays. Some said they worry that they could be held legally responsible if they preached against homosexuality and someone who heard the sermon went out and committed a hate crime. Some also regard homosexuality as a sinful choice and object to gays being grouped with blacks for legal protection.

Cohen said his predecessor, Harold Ford Jr., who is black, drew no such criticism when he supported similar hate-crime legislation. (Ford left the House and ran unsuccessfully for the Senate last year.)

The black preachers have other grudges against Cohen: He was the primary force behind the creation of the lottery in Tennessee; he spoke out against a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage; and he complained about a reference to Jesus in a prayer before a state senate session.

But the preachers have also questioned whether a white man should even represent the ninth district, which is 60% black and 34% white.

''I don't care how people dress it up,'' Poindexter told The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis. ''It always comes down to race, and he can't know what it's like to be black.''

That opinion is not unanimous in Memphis, even among the ministers group. The Reverend O.C. Collins Jr. apologized for the way the group treated Cohen, and disputed the notion that the district must be represented by a black person.

''If we're saying that, then what we're saying is that Barack Obama's candidacy is illegitimate,'' Collins said.

Collins invited Cohen to speak last week at his church, Bethlehem Missionary Baptist, where the congressman received a standing ovation.

When it comes to race and voting in Memphis, ''it's not as polarized as it used to be,'' said Marcus Pohlmann, a political scientist with Rhodes College of Memphis, ''but we haven't completely turned the corner either.'' (AP)

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