It’s been an election year in Shelby County dominated by something other than candidates in a local political arena where personality and name recognition usually go far.
There have been significant problems with the accuracy of the vote count, presidential campaigns only momentarily interested in the local Republican and Democratic bases and the politics of tax increases and municipal school districts.
But in the last full week of the campaign, the 9th Congressional District race between Democratic incumbent Steve Cohen and Republican challenger George Flinn has emerged as the most contentious race on the ballot.
“The man is desperate to hold office,” Cohen said last week, responding to the latest barrage of television ads by Flinn.
Once early voting began earlier this month, Flinn’s full slate of TV ads transitioned from introductions of Flinn in his medical practice to attacks on Cohen. The latest ads that caused Cohen to respond target his travel and missed votes in Congress.
About a third of the missed votes, Cohen responded, were to attend to his mother as she was dying and for her funeral as well as the funerals of civil rights leader Benjamin L. Hooks and Thomas Boggs. In other cases, he missed some votes because of delays in his airline flights to Washington. And none of the trips were paid for by the government.
“Yes, I’ve missed a few votes. But the issue is really the over 5,000 votes I’ve made,” Cohen said. “I take my work seriously. … He should be ashamed of himself. … They give out a false connotation about my work ethic.”
Flinn hit the points in the ads Tuesday, Oct. 23, as they began airing. But he coupled that with a continued call for Cohen to debate him.
If enthusiasm for a debate was all it took to get two politicians on the same stage at the same time, there would have been a series of Flinn-Cohen match ups.
“I will debate him anytime,” Flinn said Wednesday. “Day, night, 1 in the morning, Sunday morning, Saturday afternoon, any time. … I think the voters, the constituents, the people in District 9 deserve that.”
“I would really like to debate him,” Cohen countered. “He’d be prime for picking. He knows nothing about Congress. He has no clue. He is vulnerable on every subject.”
Cohen is coupling his debate response with a condition that Flinn release his tax returns before there can be any real work toward a debate. Flinn responded that he would be willing to talk about his tax returns at a debate. Cohen began wondering aloud if Flinn has something to hide.
“Now I think as time goes on, it becomes more apparent that there’s something wrong with his income tax (returns) or something he doesn’t want the public to see,” Cohen said.
Cohen also contrasted his own television ads with the Flinn ads made in Louisville, Ky.
“Our ads aren’t slick,” Cohen said. “They are about people who support me. They are about people in the community. … They are about my record.”
But the attack ads are not the standard fill in the blank with a local Republican candidate pieces emphasizing support for the party as a whole.
The Flinn ads are not linked to a larger Republican cause. Flinn has said he doesn’t care for the “extreme politics” of either party.
“The right and the left are arguing so much that everyone gets left out,” Flinn said. “And that’s the real problem I see. Health care is a challenge. We need to work together to solve the challenge.”
“I’m not afraid to say vote for Barack Obama for President,” Cohen said the next day. “My opponent acts like Mitt Romney is a notary public in Seattle, Wash.”
In fact, Cohen has been the Obama national campaign’s point man for the congressional district that Obama is expected to carry as Tennessee goes for Romney.
Cohen concedes that there was a time when he and other Democrats in Congress were dialing back the party line divisions on Capitol Hill.
“For a while, I and most Democrats kind of beat ourselves up and said we were all at fault for the gridlock,” Cohen told employees at Krone North America earlier this month. “I thought it was kind of the politically right thing to say. … I think the impasse has been caused by the tea party and their intransigence.”
Cohen also told the workers that the tea party is an “experiment” that has failed after pulling more moderate Republicans in its direction.