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VOL. 129 | NO. 142 | Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cohen-Wilkins Campaign Gets Personal

By Bill Dries

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In hard-fought political races, candidates try to disrupt the game plan of their rival, change the rules of the contest to their own liking and control the campaign’s narrative.



On the third day of the early voting period in advance of the Aug. 7 election day, that is what both contenders in the 9th District Democratic Congressional primary had come to.

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen criticized challenger Ricky Wilkins’ basic campaign narrative.

“He keeps saying that he … came back to help the poor and to work for the poor. If you want to work for the poor you work for legal services. You work for the public defender or you’re a community activist like Barack Obama,” said Cohen, who like Wilkins is an attorney. “He went to work for Burch, Porter and Johnson – a great law firm. But they represent Illinois Central (railroad). They represent Standard Oil. They represent SunTrust Bank. They represent all of the big corporate interests in America. If you want to help the poor you don’t go to work there.”

Then he criticized Wilkins’ private law practice and his work with the Texas-based collections law firm Linebarger Goggan Blair and Sampson.

“When you leave that firm you don’t get a $3.2 million finder’s fee for delinquent property tax payers and collect from the poorest people in the community who are behind in the worst housing crisis in the history of the country and then charge double and in a consent decree in federal court pay back $8 or $9 million,” Cohen said in an interview at a Monday evening fundraiser. “I could only go so long listening to these fairy tales.”

Wilkins has campaigned hard on his background of growing up poor and on welfare in South Memphis, his subsequent Greyhound bus ride to Howard University in Washington with money collected from his teachers at Carver High School. From there, he attended Vanderbilt University Law School and returned to Memphis to practice law.

It’s a narrative that has connected with voters and made Wilkins the most potent challenger Cohen has had since winning the congressional seat in 2006.

With Cohen calling Wilkins’ motivation into question, Wilkins isn’t about to apologize for his success.

The consent decree Cohen referred to was a $7.4 million settlement of a class action lawsuit in 2013 against the Linebarger firm filed by Memphis residents who claimed they overpaid what they owed, specifically in the form of the 20 percent fee Linebarger added for collecting the delinquent taxes.

“We want to talk about the issues that confront Memphis and his failure to address those issues as we go down the road,” Wilkins said of Cohen. “If he wants to talk about my legal practice and fees that my firm has earned, from my perspective that simply only speaks to the fact that he recognizes his failure in terms of addressing issues for the 9th District.”

Wilkins also points to his tenure as chairman of the Memphis Housing Authority board since the early 1990s when the city began pursuing a policy of demolishing the city’s large public housing projects and converting them to mixed-use, mixed-income developments.

“My work throughout the public housing arena is evident throughout the landscape of Memphis,” he said. “I’m very proud of what I’ve done professionally and civically.”

On public housing, he and Cohen have been on the same side. Cohen has continued to secure federal funding for the continued conversion of public housing sites in the city, including the recent Choice Neighborhood application for money to demolish Foote Homes, the last of the city’s big housing projects that is still in place.

Meanwhile, Wilkins’ campaign has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission over Cohen’s radio ad from the Fourth of July holiday – an ad voiced by a character named Pearl that Wilkins and others have criticized as racially pandering and offensive.

The complaint seeks an FEC investigation into the tagline of the ad in which Cohen says he approves the message, as required by federal law.

Cohen said he ordered the radio ad pulled before it was to air but it went on the air anyway on two radio stations.

“Think about it this way: if you take Mr. Cohen’s logic, any candidate could put any type of offensive message out into the mainstream and then simply throw their media team under the bus if they receive criticism for it, like Mr. Cohen is doing,” Wilkins said.

Cohen said he takes the complaint personally.

“He’s been making allegations about my character and the way I make decisions in politics, which are absolutely false,” Cohen added. “I’ve worked hard all my life. This has been my career and for somebody to question it is like saying something about your children.”

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