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VOL. 123 | NO. 1 | Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Cohen Stays On Full Throttle, Works to Keep Seat

By Bill Dries

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PUT 'EM UP: U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen is actively preparing to go toe to toe with attorney Nikki Tinker in the Aug. 7 primary. Tinker finished second to Cohen in the 2006 primary, but has made no secret of her continued interest in the congressional seat. -- Illustration By Philip Thompson

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said he has learned a lot during his year in Congress. And he expects that knowledge and his votes in that position to be challenged in his 2008 bid for a second two-year term from Tennessee's ninth Congressional district.

As Congress adjourned for 2007 in early December, Cohen talked about the Democratic primary skirmish to come this year.

He is expected to face attorney Nikki Tinker and possibly others in the Aug. 7 Democratic primary. Tinker finished second to Cohen in the 2006 primary with 25 percent of the vote to Cohen's 31 percent in the 15-candidate contest. Cohen, a 24-year veteran of the state Senate, had an easier time beating Republican Mark White and independent Jake Ford in the general election contest that nevertheless remained bitter.

Tinker, vice president of labor relations for Northwest Airlink/Pinnacle Airlines Inc., first emerged as a candidate in 2005 via columns written by several influential Washington beltway columnists, including Charlie Cook. She quickly became Cohen's most vocal and persistent rival in the primary campaign.

Campaign switch on

Since Cohen's election and arrival in Washington, Tinker has resumed her bid for the House seat held for 22 years by Democrat Harold Ford Sr. and 10 more years by Harold Ford Jr., brother of Cohen's general election rival, Jake Ford.

Cohen endorsed Harold Ford Jr.'s unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid in 2006. But Ford did not return the favor - not supporting anyone in the ninth district Democratic primary but also taking strong exception with even Cohen's slightest effort to suggest a link between the two campaigns after the primary. Ford Sr. campaigned for both of his sons in both races.

Since then, Harold Ford Jr. has focused on building a political presence in Nashville and surrounding Middle Tennessee as he maintains a national profile as head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. He is weighing another bid for statewide office in the future.

Cohen, like Tinker, has stayed in campaign mode with a high profile in Washington as well as frequent trips back to the district for lots of constituent meetings, speeches and proclamations. It's a common pattern for House members dictated by the short two-year terms of the office.

Cohen described his first year as congressman as moving at an "intense pace."

"We feel very confident that we're going to have a large, strong vote and be successful in being re-elected," Cohen said without referring to Tinker directly. "We had a negative campaign against us in 2006. ... It tried to paint my record as something it wasn't.

"I think it will be more intense. The last time was a negative campaign and there was a distortion of my record and it got down to my religion and my race. ... People get desperate the second time around. We're going to stay in a positive mode."

Tinker could not be reached for comment, but she has been making appearances around the district for months in a low-key campaign start. Tinker's 2006 bid used a similar approach that contrasted sharply with a crowded Cohen campaign calendar.

Display of confidence

Cohen said he intends to have endorsements from most if not all of the Congressional Black Caucus in the coming campaign as well as campaign contributions.

Cohen, who is white, made an early bid to join the caucus on the basis of the district's majority black population, but was rebuffed and did not contest the decision.

He's also backed legislation calling for an apology by the U.S. government for the institution of slavery, but has stopped short of supporting reparations legislation that would involve some kind of cash or property settlement from the government to descendents of slaves.

Those efforts, as well as Cohen's comparison of his voting record to that of a black middle-aged woman, were lampooned mercilessly on the Comedy Channel faux cable news show "The Colbert Report." Cohen survived the interview in which the host, Steven Colbert, asked him, among other things, if he was a black woman.

Cohen's position on the House Judiciary Committee also gave him a high profile in the committee's questioning of Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez just before Gonzalez resigned under pressure earlier last year.

Cohen recently traveled to Iraq to visit U.S. troops and talk with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki - a trip that only underscored his vocal opposition to the war.

"I think the American public still thinks we should redeploy," said Cohen, who visited Iraq in October. "I didn't feel comfortable with Maliki. I didn't feel comfortable with that government. They have done very, very little to bring about political reconciliation."

Some critics of the war have conceded in recent months that the Bush administration's "surge" strategy has worked.

"Some of the success in Iraq has come from the sheiks themselves, independent of the surge, joining with the Americans to root out al-Qaeda," Cohen said. "They thought that was damaging to their people. But the surge has had some success.

"You put in more guns and more troops, sometimes you have some success. ... At the same time, I think our presence still is one of the great factors in there being terrorism there - and that they see us as an occupying force and want to get us out."

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