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VOL. 129 | NO. 99 | Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Wilkins Maps Different Challenge of Cohen

By Bill Dries

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Ricky Wilkins is promising to match U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen’s energy level and be more of a presence in the district than Cohen if he upsets the incumbent in the August Democratic primary for the 9th Congressional District.



“This campaign and this congressional office is more than just someone going to Washington to vote in the halls of Congress,” Wilkins said Monday, May 19, outside the National Civil Rights Museum as he announced an endorsement from a group of ministers. “It also represents someone who’s going to be on the ground in Memphis where real people are, where real pain is being felt, where real solutions need to be provided. I am that man.”

The idea in Wilkins’ campaign is to match Cohen’s formidable energy level and presence – something neither of Cohen’s Democratic challengers in the last two primaries, Willie Herenton and Tomeka Hart, were able to do.

But Cohen has also changed his campaign game plan this time around.

He is putting more emphasis on his Washington presence as a bully pulpit on a special issue with local relevance.

The primary is on the same ballot with a set of countywide general election races that have the potential, so far largely unrealized, to be a referendum on the local criminal justice system and its direction.

Against that backdrop, Cohen has pushed hard in Washington for an end to the federal “war on drugs.” He’s publicly berated the head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Capitol Hill committee hearings. And he’s urged President Barack Obama, who has again endorsed Cohen in the primary, to commute more federal drug crime sentences in lieu of sentencing guideline changes.

Wilkins is emphasizing the importance of the congressman who represents most of the city of Memphis in Washington being seen more often in the district as part of the city’s struggle to rise above its historically high poverty level.

“I’m going to be visible in Washington, but I’m also going to be visible in the streets here in Memphis,” Wilkins said Monday. “This community has to turn the page and prepare itself for the future. No disrespect to those who have served in the past. I want to say to everybody: If you like Steve Cohen, you are going to love Ricky Wilkins.”

That suggests Wilkins is hoping for some level of Cohen base crossover.

It is also aimed squarely at a potential vulnerability for any congressional incumbent: balancing time in the district with the business of a legislative session in Washington.

It is a difficult balance with the perpetual campaign cycle that comes with a two-year term.

If an incumbent spends more time in the district and misses votes in Washington, a challenger could use the missed votes as an issue – especially if it comes with a dearth of announcements about federal funding coming to the city.

On the other hand, a challenger can raise a different kind of issue if the incumbent makes all of the votes and becomes a fixture on C-SPAN and the cable news networks but rarely appears in person in a district such as Memphis where physical presence matters.

For the last 40 years, the city’s three congressmen – Harold Ford Sr., Harold Ford Jr. and Cohen – have established the model for balance, leaning toward an aggressive physical presence in the district and absences that come with frequent reminders of federal funding on its way to the city.

Wilkins isn’t positioning himself as the anti-Cohen.

“I’m someone who’s a bridge builder. I can work with anybody in the community,” Wilkins said when asked how his campaign differs from those of past Cohen challengers. “We are running our campaign. I said from day one we were going to win this campaign from the ground up, not the top down.”

Herenton’s campaign in 2010 included an emphasis on the lack of any black congressional representatives from the state of Tennessee. One of several campaign slogans he used, “Just One,” was a reference to that.

Hart did not make the point as prominently in her 2012 campaign but said she understood Herenton’s point.

Wilkins is not necessarily claiming to be a consensus challenger to Cohen – a status Herenton embraced in 2010 but Hart rejected in 2012.

“If folks want to coin me as a consensus candidate, I’ll accept that,” Wilkins said. “I’m not running under any labels. I’m just running as a person that’s concerned about the future of our city.”

Among the ministers endorsing Wilkins was Bishop Brandon Porter of the Church of God in Christ.

“He just happens to be a black man,” Porter said when asked about his support. “Being that I am black, I cannot negate that fact. There are young people that I want to point towards him and say, ‘You can still survive. You can advance.’ … We need change. I’m a strong believer that if something is not broken, you don’t just say, ‘Don’t fix it,’ you make it better.”

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