U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen told political supporters over the weekend that he expects the 9th Congressional district Democratic primary race with attorney Ricky E. Wilkins to involve a lot of mud slinging.
“Every morning I get up and I look forward to Aug. 8 because I know I’m going to see some stuff in the next two months that I’ve probably never seen,” Cohen told supporters at the opening of his East Memphis campaign headquarters Saturday, May 31. “But I’m prepared for it.”
Meanwhile, former Shelby County Schools board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., in introducing Cohen, said that the challenge of Cohen is about a Jew representing a predominantly black congressional district.
“There is an 800-pound gorilla in the room and this gorilla will growl continually, particularly among African-Americans in Memphis, Tenn. You hear this red herring about the fact that a Jew cannot effectively represent the black community in the 9th district,” Whalum said. “I want to get it on the table right now.”
Whalum appeared to be referring to Wilkins’ endorsement in May by a group of black ministers at a press conference outside the National Civil Rights Museum.
“I want to let you know that it is disingenuous especially in Memphis, Tenn., for a group of Christian African-American ministers to say that a Jew cannot effectively represent a black person,” Whalum said. “It’s disingenuous because we preachers get in the pulpit every Sunday and preach about how a Jew is effectively representing us in heaven for 2,000 years.”
The ministers at Wilkins’ May 19 press conference never referred to Cohen being Jewish and Wilkins said he was not seeking to be a consensus black challenger to Cohen but would accept the support of voters who saw him as that.
Cohen took aim at Wilkins’ criticism of him at the press conference for not being in Memphis enough and thus not involved enough in the city’s struggle with its historically high level of poverty.
“You’re supposed to work with your local officials and highlight programs in Washington that your mayor needs, that your community needs and help them to fund it,” Cohen said. “Congress people don’t administer. We legislate. We pass bills with money and the money comes down here. … We can’t tell them what to do. If you want a political boss, we can bring back Crump. But we don’t want a political boss.”
Later, he linked the criticism to former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who challenged Cohen in the 2010 Democratic congressional primary.
“The mayor who’s had the most time as mayor, who is most responsible for where Memphis is is Mayor Herenton,” Cohen told reporters. “My opponent is Mayor Herenton’s political child. He’s throwing stones at a place where he shouldn’t be throwing them – at his Daddy.”
Cohen also took aim at the local schools merger, saying he gets involved in issues he feels he can be effective in from Washington.
“When I can’t be effective I don’t. When people want to give up the charter for schools … I don’t get on the Titanic,” Cohen said to cheers from the crowd. “Some people are upset and say I don’t get involved in local issues. They shouldn’t have gotten involved in that local issue. … They messed up our city schools.”
Cohen voiced the same misgivings about the schools merger two years ago when then-Shelby County Schools board member Tomeka Hart challenged him in that year’s Democratic congressional primary.
Whalum has made opposition to the schools merger a litmus test for candidates he will support in the 2014 elections.
Last week, he conditioned “enthusiastic” support for Democratic nominee for Shelby County Mayor Deidre Malone in part on her support of the schools merger.
Whalum finished second to Malone and ahead of County Commissioner Steve Mulroy in the May Democratic mayoral primary in which all three contenders vowed at the beginning of the campaign to support whoever won the primary.
In a May 29 Tweet, Whalum said his “asking price” for supporting Malone in the general election campaign for mayor included: “acknowledge that the surrender of MCS charter was a mistake.”
He also called on Malone to oppose closing any schools in Memphis “even if it means detailing county administration employees to the 9 buildings.” The other two conditions were no campaign contributions from those accepting payment-in-lieu-of-taxes business incentives and demand that Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. pay the $57 million owed Shelby County Schools in the lawsuit that followed the City Council’s 2008 decision to cut funding to what was then Memphis City Schools.
In another Tweet that same day, Whalum said Malone “has chosen not to agree with my requirements to have me aggressively campaign with and for her.”
“Perhaps she will beat Mayor Luttrell by a wide margin. Perhaps not,” he continued. “At any rate, I thought I should let my supporters know.”