U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen is running for a fourth term in Congress starting with the Aug. 2 primary, in which he is being challenged by countywide school board member Tomeka Hart.
The Memphis News editorial board talked with Cohen about the challenge and his political career as well as the move toward a consolidated school system in Shelby County and his ties to President Barack Obama.
TMN: How has redistricting changed the campaign?
COHEN: More mileage. Driving to Cordova or driving to Millington is a lot more time consuming and expensive than driving to East Memphis. It’s opened up the opportunity to visit new areas and see new parts of the county.
TMN: What do you hear from them? What are their issues?
COHEN: Well, they are much more conservative. Those areas are much more tea party oriented – tea party and conservative Republican not moderate Republican. There are a lot of veterans in Millington and that’s a good thing because we do a lot of veterans services. I think we have a good record on veterans issues. Three different people in my office work on veterans issues. We were responsible for getting the VA administrator Jay Robinson here. … I was able to close the deal on getting an outstanding administrator. We had an administrator that I felt was deficient and I think others did to. We got one of the best. I think otherwise people are aware of kind of the lottery scholarships we’ve gotten over the years. … They know my record. They know I work hard. They know I talk straight. They ride bicycles and they like open government. There are people out there who don’t like the war.
TMN: So, they are conservative and you are a well known Democrat. How does that work?
COHEN: Some of them tune me out. They are on a different band. But overall, I don’t think it’s going to make much difference. Our polling indicates that we should do extremely well in both the primary and general. The Democratic party did a Democrat-Republican vote on the district and it had it at 75 percent Democrat. I can’t foresee losing any of that Democratic vote.
TMN: In our discussion with Tomeka Hart, your primary challenger, she was critical of your style and your bluntness – saying that is divisive and limits your ability in an environment where Republicans are the majority.
COHEN: She doesn’t understand Congress. I have a great relationship with Republicans in Congress. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and I are co sponsors of a bill on digital goods which we think will pass the House and maybe pass the Senate. It’s a major initiative. Chairman Smith and I work very closely together. … The bottom line is what you get for Memphis – particularly what you get without earmarks, which we don’t have – is by working with the administration. And of course, I’ve got the President’s back and the President has mine. … We’re opening up the first minority business office ever in the state of Tennessee and we got that by working with the Department of Commerce. Ed Stanton is an outstanding U.S. Attorney and I was proud to nominate him. It took us a little bit of Houdini-like magic to get him the nomination. And the same thing with (Federal) Judge (John) Fowlkes. We worked with Senator (Patrick) Leahy who is a dear friend of mine and Senator (Harry) Reid. We’ve also worked with (Tennessee) Senators (Lamar) Alexander and (Bob) Corker. I work very well with Republicans. … But Republicans is not where you get things done. You get things done with the administration and your Democratic colleagues in the Senate.
TMN: In the day to day Congressional activity do you work better across party lines than on the big issues.
COHEN: We get along generally. I would say the traditional older Republicans are more likely to get along with the Democrats than the Tea party folks. The class of 2010 Republicans are rather cliqueish and they stay together. I don’t think the tea party folks have reached out. They are more idealogues. They are also not leadership and its leaders that you can work with. They have different philosophy and that’s not going to change. They want to get rid of all kinds of regulations, some which might make sense. … But most of the regulations I think are valid in terms of improving the environment … I think it’s important to have fresh water. … They are not going to change on those things. But there are some things you can work with them on. … It’s tough. On the big issues – they are not going to change on defunding Planned Parenthood. They are not going to change on defunding NPR. Those are their talking points and they’ve made a point of working against the President. I’ve been one of the major messengers of the Democratic party. I’ve been called on by the leaders to message as much as possible on different issues and I’ve been proud to do it and support the President.
TMN: Did you think you would go to Congress and pass bills or do more in the way of making deals?
COHEN: At first, it was earmarks. Earmarks was a misunderstood thing. In our first Congress, we made earmarks transparent and put them on line and sign and affirm under penalty of law that you didn’t have any self interest and your family didn’t. The process was cleaned up. It could have been cleaned up a little bit more. It shouldn’t have gone away. It doesn’t add at all to the budget. It just means that legislators, not Congress people, not governors decide where projects go. If you think government closest to the people is best, your Congressman is better than your governor. Right now most of them go through the state and then the governor decides through political decisions – they are political. There is some objectivity to them but they are all colored in politics. There are other projects the President’s people determine like HOPE VI. We worked with the city to get HOPE VI projects, but it’s the federal government working with the mayors determining which get the HOPE VI funding. … Most people think it’s extra money which it isn’t. … The fact is the Harahan Bridge money was more money in one hit than all of the earmarks I got in my first and second term because a freshman gets x amount and a second termer gets x-plus.
There was some talk of Harahan Bridge versus Whitehaven. There was no versus. We had promoted Whitehaven and Elvis Presley Boulevard as our number one project for TIGER 3. It wasn’t approved. I got a call from the secretary saying we can’t get this approved because there are some people on the Republican side that don’t like TIGER grants and they are trying to kill them as is. And if they see Elvis Presley Boulevard, they’ll think it’s a museum, a tourist thing and they don’t like that. … So, it died. In TIGER 2, we tried Main Street and there were some technical problems with the application. So in TIGER 4 we had Elvis Presley in and we also had Main Street. plus the bridge. I said put the two together – Main Street and the bridge – and that would get us two projects not one and it would get us more money. Elvis Presley, the roads and infrastructure have already been funded through state and local government and most of the money is federal pass through. I saw to it that that was expedited by two years. … The money they wanted in TIGER 4 was $10 million for bus shelters and buses. I don’t know that that’s something the people in Whitehaven are clamoring for and in need of. The reality is if we got that $10 million -- $9 million of it at least would have been a check to the bus company that makes the buses in Toledo or Rochester. We would have had no jobs and no economic benefit. We would have had buses we bought. With the Main Street project we are going to put people to work. And with the Harahan Bridge project we are going to put people to work and that $10 million plus will be spent in Memphis. While I understand buses, I see a lot of trolley cars going with nobody on them. I love them. They look cool. … But they are not so cool when nobody’s on them.
TMN: Lamar Avenue is just a horrible stretch of road from an esthetic point of view and practically if you are gong to Atlanta. What are the chances of a big transformation happening in that corridor?
COHEN: Eventually it will happen. … When (Transportation) Secretary Ray Lahood was here, he came at my request to tour FedEx and see some projects. Dexter Muller pitched him on Lamar. After we got out of the bus, the Secretary asked me what I thought of it. I said I’m for it big time. He told his man to get to work on this. That’s the way things happen. I served a term with Secretary LaHood. I was a freshman. He was in his 8th term. I admired him and sought him out on occasion. He’s a Republican. I had no idea it would pay off. I was just being nice to the gentleman. … Ron Paul and I are very close. I sit and see him on the floor. I’ll miss him.
TMN: Have you seen tea party pressure on Alexander and Corker. Has it pushed them further to the right?
COHEN: I think they have concerns about that element. But the Senate isn’t as tea party oriented. … They haven’t been affected by the tea party as much. And Lamar dropping his position as the party leader, I think makes him more valuable in some ways for Tennessee. He can be more of advocate for Tennessee and more of a free thinker. Corker and I are buddies. We got to know each other when we were both running for governor in 1994. We’ve known each other for almost 20 years and we’ve worked very closely.
What’s your take on the schools consolidation process?
I think the process has been great for lawyers. There have been millions of dollars the lawyers have benefited from which otherwise should have been spent on students. The concept was good. But the lack of perspective and understanding of what could happen was horrendous. I think what happened was foreseen by (school board member) Jeff Warren who said we don’t need to do this. … People didn’t listen to him. We are seeing what should have been foreseen. I’m afraid it’s not going to work out. I saw it in the past when I was part of a group among the Democrats in the state Senate and voted for Riley Darnell to be our speaker in 1986 and to put out John Wilder. We didn’t think what will the other seven Democrats do who will be in the minority. Will they take this lying down and lose their chairmanships and their positions of authority? They went with the Republican minority and they kept Wilder in. They maintained their positions of authority and we suffered. When you have things like that happen, you look at what the effects of doing something to somebody are and what are they going to do. … This was a situation where people thought we give up our charter and ipso facto we’ve got what we want. You’ve got to think too what’s going to happen to people who you are affecting in the county who have no vote. What are they going to do? Jeff was right.
TMN: What do you think they should do? Should they form their own school systems?
COHEN: That’s a local decision. I’m not going to get into it. Some people came to me involved in that, they wanted to contribute money. I chose not to get money from that effort. I saw this becoming a problem. I think the city schools are going to have less money because the city doesn’t have an obligation to give money to the countywide schools. I see the city school kids getting less money, having less authority because there will be county elected people on the school board which will in essence be a greater city school board. It’s going to become like Conference USA. The idea was that this merger was going to make us the Big East. But if the suburbs form their own schools, which is more likely than not, the county school board will be the city schools with the unincorporated county which is much more difficult to manage because it’s larger geographically. It is logistically difficult to manage and it will have county management. So it becomes Conference USA with the New Mexico State and Texas San Antonio – nothing you want to have.
TMN: A lot has been made of you being a white man representing a majority African American district. Does race still matter? Is that releveant?
COHEN: I don’t think it is and I think in this particular situation it’s not as much as it was. I’ve gotten 79.5 percent against both Nikki Tinker and Willie Herenton. My feeling when I go out in the community is that my support is stronger than ever. … I’ve been out there now for 33 years as the white politicians who got involved and helped African Americans get elected and was appearing with black politicians when others weren’t. … I’ve got that history. In my particular situation -- that plus the lottery and the scholarships -- people know that I’m a fighter and I get things done. I’ve got a base that’s not going away and goes beyond race. Now on the other hand, I’ve got some opposition and most of the opposition I’ve gotten has been against me in every election I’ve had.
TMN: Because you’re white?
COHEN: Yes. And they are never going to be for me. Some of it’s because I’m white and some of it’s because they want power. Sidney Chism has been out there against me. He’s got a radio show and spews venom on a regular basis. I don’t know who listens. Sidney Chism hasn’t been my friend. He was for Nikki Tinker and he was for Willie Herenton. He said both of them were gong to get 80 percent of the vote. He’s either got a math problem or a grass roots problem. And he’s against me again. And there’s a whole bunch of people in the New Path crowd who were for Nikki Tinker in 2006 and who were for Nikki Tinker in 2008 and sat out or were for Willie Herenton in 2010. They want their own power. It may be racial or it may be we want our team in. The congressional seat is different now than it was. When Harold Ford Sr. was elected to Congress in 1974, there was no black mayor. There was no black majority city council. There was no black majority county commission. There were no black assessors of property etc. Things have changed a great deal. So the congressman who was the first major black elected official in this area became the godfather. Harold Ford became a political machine. There’s no need for a political machine. There’s no need for the Congressman to take that kind of position which I think is something you here from the other camp. There’s an African American mayor and he supports me and I support him. And the councilmen have their roles. But to submit that some of these problems need to be solved by the Congressman and to say that the mayor who is responsible for them shouldn’t be – it was different when Harold Ford was there because mayor chandler – who I had respect for – there’s not a public official I worked with in my life that I have any more respect for than Wyeth Chandler. He was a great judge and a good guy in a crunch. But Wyeth Chandler had different priorities.
TMN: This district encompasses this range of economic racial and business interests. Do your colleagues deal with that range of constituents?
COHEN: Some do, but I don’t think most do. My situation is unique. … They see Memphis in a different light outside the district. I work for the entire community. I work hard and I always have. My real opponent is George Flinn. It’s not like I have great concern about beating him. But I want to win the first time after redistricting with the highest numbers possible. He’s going to spend ungodly amounts of money. For the first time I’m outspent. He spent nearly $4million against (Cong. Stephen) Fincher, most of which was his own money. He spent nearly $2 million against Mayor Wharton, most of which was his own money. The rumors are … he’ll spend $5 million this time. You can’t watch television without watching an ultrasound test. He’s going to be out there. That’s the major opponent. I go everywhere… I don’t know that anybody other than the Clintons or the Kennedys have had that kind of support in America. And I’m proud of it.