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VOL. 129 | NO. 117 | Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Wilkins Targets Cohen as ‘Career Politician’

By Bill Dries

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Ricky Wilkins told a packed campaign headquarters in Poplar Plaza on a busy campaign weekend that U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen is waging a dirty campaign while complaining that Wilkins is doing the same.

WILKINS

COHEN

“On the day that I made the announcement that I was running for Congress, my opponent mentioned that this campaign was going to be dirty and filthy,” Wilkins told the crowd of more than 100. “And he’s following through on the promise that he made. The only one who’s slinging dirt and filth is his campaign.”

The comment came at the end of a week in which Cohen filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission over Wilkins’ campaign signs and even the banner marking his headquarters because they didn’t disclose who paid for them.

“If you’re asking the people of the 9th District to send you to Congress where you will play a part in creating new laws, you should know the law,” said John Marek, Cohen’s campaign manager, in a written statement.

“I think when you don’t have anything of substance to say about me then you start pulling at straws,” Wilkins said Saturday, June 14, adding that he has changed his campaign material to include such a disclosure.

He also portrayed Cohen, a state senator before being elected to Congress in 2006, as a “career politician” who has support in the Aug. 7 Democratic Congressional primary from “special interest groups” outside the district who favor the status quo.

“When I look at the condition of our community and watching us get poorer and poorer and poorer – many of our communities are literally dying on the vine. … I’m not on some personal ego trip for Ricky Wilkins. … I am running to be a congressman that’s not going to pander to our community,” Wilkins said. “There are those for whom the status quo works, and it works well for them. And I understand that. They don’t want anything to change.”

Cohen and Wilkins, an attorney and chairman of the Memphis Housing Authority board, have offered fundamentally different views of the role of a congressman.

Cohen has said his job is to stay out of local issues and focus on votes in Congress, and to work connections with the White House to bring federal funding to Memphis for efforts pursued by local leaders.

Wilkins has said the city’s representative in the U.S. House should be more visible in Memphis and active in more issues.

“I’m not going to hide behind the fact that it’s local, because all politics is local. And if you are in pain, you just want relief. I’m telling you that you can expect a new kind of leader in Ricky Wilkins,” Wilkins said Saturday. “I’m not going to be a political bully and try to threaten you when you are not supporting me.”

Cohen has the endorsement of President Barack Obama in his re-election effort and has stressed his connection with the White House as being more important to bringing federal funding to Memphis despite a Republican majority in the U.S. House.

Wilkins pointed to a cardboard cutout of Obama in the window of his campaign headquarters, saying the endorsement doesn’t bother him.

“He’s my president, too,” Wilkins said. “And if he likes Steve Cohen, he’s going to love Ricky Wilkins.”

Two years ago, in the primary race with challenger Tomeka Hart, Cohen said the role of congressman in Memphis politics has changed from the days when Harold Ford Sr. held the seat. He described Ford as a political “godfather” following his election in 1974. But he said that kind of congressman is no longer needed as African-Americans have been elected to city and countywide offices.

Meanwhile, Wilkins framed his challenge of Cohen as an effort grounded in his own experience with poverty.

“Those of you who are in this room today who grew up here, you know we’ve been waiting a long time for Memphis to break out of its shell,” Wilkins said after recalling his childhood in South Memphis and returning to Memphis after earning a law degree at Vanderbilt University in 1990. “At what point is Memphis going to become this great place that we know it can become? When is it going to be as good for the rest of us as it is for a few of us?”

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