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VOL. 127 | NO. 132 | Monday, July 9, 2012

Cohen Keeps Focus on Bigger Picture

By Bill Dries

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Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, says he works well with Republicans in Congress but that most of the federal funding and help he has secured for the city comes from the Democratic-controlled White House.

During an editorial board session last week with The Daily News, Cohen responded to criticism in a similar editorial board session from countywide school board member Tomeka Hart, who is challenging him in the Aug. 2 Democratic congressional primary.


“The bottom line is what you get for Memphis, particularly what you get without earmarks – which we don’t have – is from the administration,” Cohen said. “And of course, I’ve got the president’s back and the president’s got mine.”

A transcript of Cohen’s session with the editorial board will be published in a future issue of The Memphis News, sister publication of The Daily News, just as Hart’s was in last week’s edition.

Cohen was an early backer of President Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries when then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was still in the primary skirmish. Obama has endorsed Cohen in this election, a rarity in a primary, as well as past congressional elections.

Hart said Cohen’s partisanship has affected his ability to work with the Republican majority in Congress.

“She doesn’t understand Congress. I have a great relationship with Republicans in Congress,” Cohen countered citing numerous pieces of legislation he’s co-sponsored and crafted with Republicans in the House and Senate. “I work very well with Republicans. … But Republicans is not where you get things done. It’s the administration.”

Cohen also said the process of consolidating Shelby County’s two public school systems has been “great for lawyers.”

“The concept was good,” Cohen said. “But the lack of perspective and understanding of what could happen was horrendous. What happened was foreseen by (school board member) Jeff Warren. … I’m afraid it’s not going to work out.”

Hart was an advocate of the consolidation before and after it appeared opponents of such consolidation had the votes in the Tennessee Legislature to make Shelby County schools outside the city of Memphis a separate school district.

Cohen has moved to make sure Title 1 federal education funding follows disadvantaged students in the merged school system instead of breaking down along school system boundaries with the possibility of municipal school systems in the suburbs.

“It’s going to become like Conference USA,” Cohen said comparing the merged school system to the college athletic conference the University of Memphis belongs to for one more year. “The idea was that this merger was going to make us the Big East (conference). But if the (municipalities) form their own schools, which is more likely than not, the county school system will be the city schools with the unincorporated county which is much more difficult to manage because it’s larger geographically. … It will have county management.”

Cohen is seeking his fourth term in a district that has changed because of redistricting to take in parts of north Shelby County including Millington while losing East Memphis and East Shelby County precincts to the 8th Congressional District.

“I’m a fighter,” said Cohen, who defeated Willie Herenton, the longest serving Memphis mayor in the city’s history, in the 2010 Democratic congressional primary. Before that he emerged from a large field of contenders in the open 2006 primary to claim the seat being given up that year by former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. as well as another large field in 2008.

“I’ve got a base that doesn’t go away,” Cohen said.

He also said he considers former Shelby County Commissioner George Flinn to be his “real opponent.” Flinn is among the contenders running in the Aug. 2 companion Republican congressional primary. “For the first time I’m outspent,” Cohen said of Flinn who is already airing television commercials and who has spent millions in previous campaigns over the years for Shelby County mayor and the 8th Congressional District seat.

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