VOL. 131 | NO. 2 | Monday, January 4, 2016
Harris Weighs Cohen Challenge
By Bill Dries
Tennessee state Senate Democratic leader Lee Harris is considering a challenge of U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen in the August Democratic Congressional primary.
Harris told The Daily News he will make a decision in the “next couple of weeks.”
“I wasn’t looking to run for another office,” said Harris, who was elected to the state Senate in 2014 from a city council seat he won in 2011.
Cohen left no doubt Friday, Jan. 1, at outgoing council member Myron Lowery’s annual prayer breakfast that he will be running for re-election in 2016.
Cohen has also indicated he expects opposition in the August Democratic primary.
If Harris makes the primary, he is likely to focus most of his attention on Cohen’s long tenure as an elected official – 36 years including his time as a state Senator.
Harris also believes the 2015 city elections indicate a desire by voters for change that has not subsided.
“The people of Memphis aren’t done changing this community,” he said. “I think 36 years continuously in office is probably too long. It’s probably time for the baton to be passed.”
Cohen and Harris have faced each other before – in the 2006 Democratic Congressional primary on Cohen’s way to claiming the open Congressional seat when incumbent Harold Ford Jr. ran for the U.S. Senate.
Cohen and Harris were part of a field of 15 with Cohen getting 31 percent of the vote. Harris got less than one percent.
“I had little political experience,” Harris said of the 2006 experience. “All I had was a glass full of optimism.”
Cohen easily won the general election in November of 2006 in a district that has had a Democratic representative since 1975.
Harris became more involved in local Democratic politics after 2006, working in other campaigns and learning from the experience of his first time on the ballot.
In his four re-election campaigns, Cohen has won with at least 66 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. That was how much of the vote he got in the 2014 primary pitting Cohen against attorney Ricky E. Wilkins.
Two years earlier, in the 2012 Democratic primary, Cohen beat challenger Tomeka Hart with 89.2 percent of the vote.
Harris doesn’t risk his state Senate seat if he runs in 2016. His Senate seat isn’t up for election again until 2018.
But Harris also said he’s not worried about giving up his position in a Senate chamber that has only five Democrats out of 33 Senators.
“Memphis is full of talent,” he said. “The idea that someone is indispensable in the state Senate is a bunch of malarkey.”
In 2014, he won the state Senate seat held by a member of the Ford family since 1975, upsetting incumbent Ophelia Ford in the Democratic primary.
Ford, who had health issues, a poor attendance record and several YouTube-worthy bizarre rants in Senate committee sessions, was toppled by Harris who was careful not to tread on the Ford family’s political legacy.
Ophelia Ford had claimed her brother John’s Senate seat in 2005 by 13 votes over a Republican contender in what is a majority Democratic district. She held onto it through a court fight first over the close margin and then over a bid by Senate Republicans to unseat her over questions about votes cast in the name of dead citizens.
Cohen is a different kind of incumbent.
“It is quite the undertaking,” Harris acknowledged. “You point up the policy differences.”
The policy differences defined by Harris as he weighs the race include Cohen’s opposition to Tennessee Promise, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s last-dollar community college scholarship program pledging two years of free community college or technology school for the state’s high school graduates. It’s funded with Tennessee Lottery proceeds.
Cohen has been a vocal opponent even when President Barack Obama said earlier this year he wanted to find a way to create a federal version of the program.
Cohen called the program “a fraud” at a January 2015 townhall meeting.
“People whose income is over $40,000 and people who didn’t make the grade in high school –more affluent, less achievers – they get most of the money,” he added. “The money should go to the middle-income kids who are making the grade.”
Harris also points to Cohen’s quest to have the FBI Building in Washington renamed to exclude the name of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s founding director.
Harris argues that quest and similar ones amount to “tilting at windmills” and are not the priorities of 9th District constituents.
“That signals that maybe there is a disconnect,” Harris said.
Cohen’s speech at Lowery’s prayer breakfast included no mention of the FBI building or similar resolutions Cohen has sponsored that Wilkins criticized in 2014 as “pandering” to voters.
Instead Cohen focused on criminal justice reform, calling for changes in marijuana laws, more commutations by President Obama of crack cocaine and marijuana sentences and better trade relations with Cuba.
He also touted his bill calling for outside investigations of all police shooting as he questioned a grand jury’s decision to pass on any charges against Memphis Police officer Connor Schilling in the July shooting death of Darrius Stewart.
“Something went on there that wasn’t right,” Cohen said to applause. “Police need to think before they take lives. The system needs to be beyond suspicion.”