As previously reported in this space, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen was well aware a month ago that he was likely to have a Democratic primary opponent in 2012. And he made it clear, in an interview with the Flyer in his Washington office on May 4, that he knew the identity of his challenger, though he chose not to divulge it at that time.
On Tuesday, Tomeka Hart, Memphis Urban League director and member of the Memphis City Schools board, confirmed to the Flyer that she would be running for the 9th District seat, though, as she noted, she had not yet filed.
Back on May 4, Cohen attributed his information to a private “grapevine” and said of his then unnamed opponent that “she really has some abilities and has a future." But he cautioned both her and her supporters, "If she runs against me, she's going to find out that she's misread the situation entirely."
Comparing the new challenge to the racially focused appeals of primary foes Nikki Tinker (2008) and former mayor Willie Herenton (2010), both 4-to-1 losers, the congressman said, "They claim it's different, but it isn't. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it's a duck."
Since acknowledging her candidacy, Hart has disclaimed any interest in using race as a platform, but Cohen remains certain that her support group conceives of her race in the spirit of the 1991 “People’s Convention” that first designated Herenton, then a recently retired MCS superintendent, as a consensus black candidate for Memphis mayor.
“So they’ll come up with this ‘surprise.’ It’s all a programed thing. It’s all ready, it’s ordained how it’s going to happen, and It’s going to happen. I’ve seen it, know it. I’ve got grapevine that tells me stuff. And it just doesn’t make any sense.”
Cohen said that the purpose of the 1991 People’s Convention had been “to find a unified, singular candidate to run against a conservative mayor,” then incumbent Dick Hackett, who, said Cohen, “was a person whose base was in the conservative white community, most of whose patronage was in the conservative white community, as was most of his politics and his emphasis.
“He was not responsive to the African American community in a major way. So it wasn’t his priority. Nor did he ever get much support from the African American community, as distinguished from my situation, where I’ve always gotten a large, large African-American vote and have always had the interests of African Americans at the forefront of my political agenda and have always responded with such and voted for such and rewarded such.”
Expressing confidence in his support among African Americans, Cohen said, "It'd be different if I was, you know, if I voted like Marsha Blackburn,” referring to the conservative Republican congresswoman in the adjoining 7th congressional district.
Pointing out that both Tinker and Herenton had topped out at 21 percent of the primary vote in their races against him, Cohen said that figure represented a “core group…that will never accept me because of my race or would feel like voting on some ethnocentric similarity.”
Professing something like empathy for his prospective opponent, Cohen said that for her to make the race would “not be a wise thing” and was attributable to “these people who are pushing her, the lack of knowledge that they have of the situation.”
He likened her circumstances to his own at an equivalent age and career stage.
“You know, I thought of running for county mayor in 1978. I was 31 years old. I went to visit [FedEx founder] Fred Smith. I told him I was going to be like he was. At a very young age he made Federal Express, and I was going to be county mayor. I’d gotten a lot of attention, publicity in Memphis from being vice president of the state Constitutional Convention in 1977. I’d campaigned for the articles in ’78 and I’d made the rounds, made the speeches, and I’d had some newspaper stories and thought I was really well known and would have a shot at county mayor.
“And I guess reality set in, and I was fortunate enough at that time to not run for county mayor. I’d have been slaughtered by [eventual winner] Bill Morris and John Ford Canale. I might have finished after [3rd place finisher, councilman] Ed McBrayer. Probably would. Instead, I wisely chose to run for county commissioner and learned something about county government…I learned something about politics."Cohen went on from there to be state senator, sponsoring and passing legislation like his 16-year effort that resulted in the current state lottery. "I had some opportunities along the line to learn something about the system and values that prepared me to come here.”
Cohen summed it all up as a clear object lesson for his opponent: “So I was fortunate. But some people see themselves, and they think all of a sudden that they’re a rock star. There are very few overnight sensations. In politics, you not only have to be somebody yourself. It depends on who you’ve got to run against on a given day.”
As of now, that given day, August 2, 2012, would seem to include a Democratic primary contest between Cohen and Tomeka Hart, as well as a test of the 9th District congressman’s reasoning about the race, presented here.