Identity Politics Amuck

by Chris Bodenner
One of the most dramatic congressional races this year is the battle for Tennessee's 9th.  Wrapped around Memphis, this overwhelmingly-black district is represented by Steve Cohen (D) -- just one of two white congressmen with majority-black constituencies.  In his inaugural '06 bid, Cohen had faced a dozen candidates trying to maintain the district's 40-year streak of black representation.  In the end, runner-up Nikki Tinker barely lost to Cohen, 31% to 25%.  The AP:

After Cohen's 2006 victory, ... critics complained loudly that Tennessee's 9th District deserved an African-American representative in Washington. ... Cohen, who is Jewish, has angered black ministers for supporting hate-crime protection for homosexuals and for opposing denominational prayers in the Tennessee Senate when he was a state lawmaker.  Cohen spent 24 years in the state Senate ... and earned a reputation as an equal rights advocate. In Congress, he has voted consistently with liberal Democrats [and often jokes that he has "voting record of a black woman's."] "I would like for people to judge me on my record," Cohen said during a campaign debate. Obama, he said, "has shown we've turned a corner in this country" and that people "judge him on the content of his character ... not the color of his skin."

As told in a great piece by Jonathan Martin, Cohen had pledged to become the first non-black member of the Congressional Black Caucus upon winning his seat.  "He was probably the most liberal white member in the legislature, perhaps even more so than most of the black members," a local politico told Martin.  Most of the staffers Cohen hired were black, including his chief of staff.  But when a leaked memo circulated by one of the CBC's co-founders made it clear that Cohen's membership was not welcome due of his race, he gave up the effort.  Now, two years later, Cohen's fighting to keep the seat against his old rival:

Tinker, a lawyer, has never held elective office and is tying her campaign to Obama's call for change in Washington. Her TV ads play up humble beginnings growing up in Alabama with a single mother and disabled grandmother. She argues her campaign is not about race but adds that her supporters hunger for more racial diversity in Congress. Of Tennessee's nine House districts, "this is the only one where African-Americans have even enough courage to stand up and run," she said during a televised debate. "I think they're saying that with those nine seats, can't we just have one?" she said, holding up nine fingers for emphasis.

But now, in a startling twist of irony, Cohen is playing a heavy hand of identity politics himself.  Yesterday, a week before TN-09's primary , Cohen successfully passed a House resolution apologizing for slavery. "I hope that this is part of the beginning of a dialogue that this country needs to engage in, concerning what the effects of slavery and Jim Crow have been. I think we started it and we're going to continue," he told the Post.  All 42 House members of the CBC co-sponsored Cohen's bill (though none have endorsed him as an incumbent).  [A reader corrects me; Cohen has been endorsed by Charlie Rangel, John Conyers, and Jesse Jackson, Jr.]   Voters go to the polls next Thursday.

It's worth noting that Cohen's predecessor in TN-09, Harold Ford, Jr., suffered the most scurrilous bit of identity politics in the '06 election.  Ford was running neck-and-neck with his GOP Senate rival when the Republican National Committee launched its famous "Call Me, Harold" ad, which ends with a hot blonde -- who "met Harold at the Playboy mansion" -- cooing into the camera.  The ad sparked a racial firestorm in the media.  Ford lost by 3 points.

(Speaking of ads, I just checked out one on Tinker's campaign site.  If you can ignore the schmaltzy harp music, the ad is genuinely moving.)

Update: My esteemed Hotline colleague, Ian Faerstein, directed me to some specific controversies I hadn't been aware of -- namely, that Tinker refused to condemn fliers circulated by a third party that read "Steve Cohen and the Jews Hate Jesus."  In a Feb. 13 editorial blasting Tinker for declining to comment, the Memphis Commercial Appeal wrote:

In reality, the American political scene has progressed to a stage in which black, white and Latino politicians can attract the support of and represent the interests of constituents regardless of race.  [Obama] has demonstrated that in several Democratic primaries.  Two years ago in the 9th District, Cohen showed that a white candidate can win the support of a majority African-American electorate.  The era in which the Congress was made up of members from "white districts" and "black districts" is over. Those who are trying to bring it back are disrespecting the pioneers who have fought for racial parity, sacrificed much for it and dreamed that this day would come.