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VOL. 129 | NO. 146 | Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Cohen, Wilkins Feud Over Endorsements

By Bill Dries

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Candidates and political strategists who advise those candidates have a complex relationship with endorsements.

They have a value in building momentum for a campaign and in the case of organizations, they usually come with a check or in-kind contribution. But in and of themselves -- especially in a long list – their value in terms of influence has its limits.

And if the campaign is hard fought enough, they can become fluid.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen and Ricky E. Wilkins, his challenger in the Aug. 7 Democratic congressional primary, are each claiming the endorsement of one of the big three municipal labor unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Cohen had listed them earlier this month along with other labor support. But Wilkins called a press conference outside the Memphis local’s headquarters Tuesday, July 29, to announce the union is backing him instead.

No one from the Memphis local appeared with Wilkins and the press conference was held outside the building and not inside.

In the contentious primary campaign even Cohen’s endorsement by President Barack Obama has been called into question.

Cohen was an early supporter of Obama’s 2008 presidential bid, when U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton seemed the favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination. And Obama has endorsed Cohen in every primary and general re-election campaign since.

Wilkins has a cardboard cut-out of Obama in the window of his East Memphis campaign headquarters.

And earlier this month he called into question Obama’s endorsement of Cohen.

“There’s not a citizen in Memphis who has heard President Obama say that he endorsed Steve Cohen,” Wilkins said at a July 17 press conference when asked about the impact of the endorsement. “But regardless, anyone who understands the nature of presidential politics, understands it is not uncommon for a sitting president to endorse a sitting congressman. I assure you, if I become the congressman I will get that same endorsement.”

Cohen said this month he has talked with Obama about some kind of presidential appearance in Memphis soon, possibly at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Cohen’s campaign signs display Obama’s name as prominently as his own and in the 2012 campaign, Cohen’s campaign doubled as the local campaign effort for Obama’s re-election.

The last significant controversy about an endorsement from the Memphis local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was in 1991 when the union’s executive director, the Rev. James Smith, announced the Memphis local was endorsing incumbent Dick Hackett in the 1991 race for Memphis mayor. A splinter group of AFSCME union members rebelled and endorsed Hackett’s challenger Willie Herenton.

When Herenton won the election, Smith’s endorsement of Hackett was one of several factors that led to a change in local leadership of the union.

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