Steve Cohen and Tomeka Hart agree that serving in Congress is about relationships, something they each said in separate interviews with The Daily News editorial board.
Cohen is seeking his fourth term representing the 9th Congressional District. Hart, a countywide school board member and president of the Memphis office of the Urban League, is challenging him in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary. The winner will meet the winner of the Aug. 2 Republican primary.
Interviews that were published in The Daily News’ weekly publication, The Memphis News, are the closest Cohen and Hart have come to a debate
“He spends a lot of time blaming Republicans. And I get that,” Hart said. “I understand the environment, but you can’t return divisiveness with divisiveness. You can’t be divided and that’s the answer. I happen to know that he’s not working with the Republicans. We’re missing out on opportunities.”
Cohen argues the relationship that brings federal funding and other support to Memphis comes from his relationship with President Barack Obama, not the Republican majority. “She doesn’t understand Congress. I have a great relationship with Republicans in Congress,” Cohen said. “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.”
Cohen’s biggest political challenge starting with his successful bid in the 2006 open election for the seat held by Harold Ford Sr. for 22 years and Harold Ford Jr. for another 10 has been in the Democratic primaries.
The elder Ford remains a major presence in Memphis politics. But Cohen, who was a state senator when Ford and the Ford machine were at the height of their political powers, said he’s not that kind of congressman.
“The congressman who was the first major black elected official in this area became the godfather. Harold Ford became a political machine,” Cohen said. “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 hear from the other camp.”
By the “other camp” Cohen means Hart, a cofounder of the local political group New Path.
“They want their own power,” he said. “It may be racial or it may be, ‘We want our team in.’”
Hart said she and others in New Path have long been unhappy with the current state of political leadership in Memphis. And she said her challenge of Cohen is part of that, and that Cohen is manipulating race as an issue.
“Steve uses race offensively and defensively and he gets away with it. He plays it and then acts like everyone else played it first,” said Hart, who cited as an example Cohen tagging her as the consensus black challenger. “A consensus black candidate and the only black candidate are two different things. I can tell you I am nobody’s consensus black candidate because I am working hard and these are not people who are saying they will vote for me because I am black. We didn’t have a meeting and everybody black said they are going to vote for me.”
If voters know Hart’s political past, it is usually for her call for the consolidation of Shelby County’s two public school systems.
Hart said the transition is less chaotic than she thought it would be and that she has no regrets.
“I think the proponents of the Norris-Todd law are probably more disappointed than I am. I submit that Norris-Todd (2011 law) was never meant to be implemented. It was based on if Memphis voted,” she said of the state law that slowed the timetable to the merger transition. “I think it was a scare tactic and they thought Memphians would say no to a merger. So we did it and as a result Sen. Mark Norris (the sponsor) has spent a lot of time this year trying to clean it up. It was a pretty sloppy law.”
Cohen countered that proponents of the merger didn’t consider the reaction.
“This was a situation where people thought we give up our charter and, ipso facto, we’ve got what we want,” he said. “You’ve got to think too what’s going to happen to people who you are affecting in the county who have no vote.”
Cohen is backing countywide school board candidates Kenneth Whalum Jr. and Freda Williams who have questioned the wisdom of the merger move as well as the recommendations of the consolidation planning commission.
“I see the city school kids getting less money,” Cohen said, “having less authority because there will be county elected people on the school board, which will in essence be a greater city school board.”