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VOL. 125 | NO. 194 | Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cohen: Love Of Government Started Early

By Sarah Baker

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With fervor for politics at a young age, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, explained his lifelong journey into Congress at the Society of Industrial Office Realtors (SIOR) luncheon Monday.

Cohen knew he wanted to go into politics from a young age. He remembers watching the 1956 Democratic and Republican conventions on television.

With a newly found passion for government, Cohen said he made it a point to see President John F. Kennedy on his trip to Memphis in a motorcade at Cooper Street and Union Avenue. He even took a photograph of him, which he keeps in his office to this day.

Watching Kennedy’s press conferences, the young Cohen expanded his knowledge about government.

When Cohen was 21, he registered to vote, the minimum age to register at the time. On the same day, he filed for office and ran for state representative.

Knowing he was going to lose the election, Cohen ran anyway.

“I ran in East Memphis and lost, but I learned something about politics, I learned about government,” Cohen said.

Upon his return to Memphis from Vanderbilt University Law School, he landed a job as the police attorney. He then ran for office in 1976 for constitutional convention delegate, with the help of lifelong friend, Henry Turley.

That time around, however, would prove to be different – Cohen won the campaign.

There were a lot of things that Cohen was very happy to do upon his victory, such as finally see – after 20 years of work – more than $1.8 billion go toward education through the Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship since 2004.

Among his other accomplishments include creating $4.5 million per year for the state arts division and helping raise 20 percent from the sales tax rebate for AutoZone Park.

But in 2006, Cohen received an opportunity to go to Congress. Calling a friend, an avid baseball fan, he said he was an AAA All-Star getting his chance to go the majors.

Once he got to the show, though, he realized he had been an AA All-Star all along.

“The talent level between Nashville and Washington is great,” Cohen said. “On both sides of the aisle, there are a lot of very intelligent, successful and dedicated people that are working in Congress.”

Cohen said that his 24 years in the Senate provided him with a certain confidence that not everyone has. He admits he “never thought twice” about not walking on the floor of the Senate.

He finds opportunities to network and convince senators to sponsor his bill.

“It’s hard to find them,” Cohen said. “I’ll say, ‘I need your help on this,’ and I work the Senate side.”

He said he saw every endeavor as a chance to learn.

“You learn first how to work your bills in the House, then how to work in the Senate and how to get things done with the administration,” he said.

And his efforts are paying off. Cohen often hears from people of many different areas of work that business is getting better.

“I’m pleased that I’ve had the opportunity to use my skills and experience, my cumulative skills as a lawyer and as a legislator for the benefit of my community and I thank you for giving me that opportunity,” Cohen said. “Everyday I’m in Washington, I feel my office is like the outpost for Memphis – the Embassy.”

Cohen foresees the economy is getting better, but only on one condition: if everyone continues to work at it. In particular, he said, he advocates getting the middle class some more buying power.

“One barrier right now is the middle class is very much removed from the successes that we’ve seen,” Cohen said. “The extremes in poverty in wealth are great in this country, and unless we can get the middle class some more opportunity, we’re not going to have the spending that we really need to really spend us out of our recession.”

Steve Guinn, president of SIOR, said its board has wanted to have Cohen speak for a number of years.

“We’ve never had either a U.S. senator or U.S. congressman before so we thought that would be important and of interest to our members,” Guinn said. “Congressman Cohen has done a lot for Memphis that’s important to our membership, being commercial real estate.”

The next SIOR meeting is a joint meeting with Certified Commercial Investment Member (CCIM) Nov. 17 at Memphis Country Club with featured speaker Bill Logue, president of FedEx Freight.

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