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Cohen Agonistes

As 2014 beckons, the 9th District congressman faces off against ill fate, a pesky press, and a longtime chief aide.

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The old adage "When it rains, it pours" wasn't coined with U.S. Representative Steve Cohen in mind, but it might as well have been. Maybe those actual storm clouds that have been gathering over Memphis the last few days are something more than coincidence.

The 9th District congressman has been eminently Google-worthy for much of 2013 and has been almost nonstop in the national media of late. The latest cloud on his horizon may not blip on the D.C. radar — not yet, anyhow — but it is likely to have a lasting effect on the local political weather.

This concerns the newest development in the falling-out of Cohen with his former district director, Randy Wade. For years, the two had been close, and, beginning with Cohen's first successful congressional run in 2006, the two were inseparable and politically hand-in-glove — so much so that each referred to the other as "my brother by another mother."

In election year 2010, when Cohen was running for reelection and Wade, a longtime Sheriff's deputy and law-enforcement veteran, sought the office of Shelby County Sheriff, they were a virtual team. That team would subsequently suffer tensions, however, and broke up with Wade's resignation in February of this year.

The seeds of that schism may have begun with Wade's defeat in that race and his feeling that Cohen had not fully supported his efforts, along with other Democrats defeated in the August countywide elections of 2010, to appeal the outcome as tainted by sins of omission or commission at the Shelby County Election Commission.

Whatever the origin of the estrangement between the two, it underwent a considerable sprouting, to the point of rampant publicity this week, regarding an adverse (if somewhat restrained) judgment by the House ethics committee on Wade's endorsement of a candidate in a 2012 legislative race.

The issue at the time was Wade's decision to publicly back G.A. Hardaway, a Democratic state representative who had lost his elective perch in Republican-controlled redistricting and made the decision to seek election in House District 93, a Southeast Memphis enclave that had long been represented by another Democrat, Mike Kernell.

Kernell was an old ally and sidekick of Cohen. That was one issue. Another was that Wade was quoted in a Hardaway flyer this way: "If there is something that needs to be taken care of on the state level, I call Rep. G.A. Hardaway. He's the go-to guy for the congressman's office." This was attributed in the flyer to "Randy Wade, District Director for U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen."

At the time, Cohen and other supporters of Kernell held a press conference at which he and they made a conscious effort to affirm support for Kernell. More privately, Cohen dispatched a letter to the House ethics committee, reporting the incident, which was a technical violation of the body's official ethics code, which mandates a "prohibition against campaign of political use of official resources for campaign or political purposes."

Whether Cohen was merely doing his duty by established House rules or administering a lesson to his errant aide — or both — is something that will remain in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. In any case, the ethics committee communicated a formal rebuke to Wade, stressing that "these are serious matters," though it informed both Cohen and his aide that the committee would "make no public statement at this time, and it is not our intention to release this letter publicly unless you make public statements regarding this matter that are inconsistent with the text or spirit of this letter."

That was on July 1st, almost a full year after the alleged infraction, and the letter did indeed become public this week — though it is uncertain as to just how that happened. Both Cohen and Wade maintain they had nothing to do with its release, though it duly turned up in media hands, and Cohen formally released copies of a "time line" and other papers relating to the issue at a Monday evening press conference.

UPDATE: Wade has apparently conceded that he leaked the ethics complaint information out over the weekend.

The bottom line is that the two long-time allies are no longer feeling very fraternal about each other. Wade has indicated he is open to the idea of supporting an opponent against his former boss in next year's Democratic primary and has called for a public convention "in the community" to arrive at a consensus candidate.

For his part, Cohen sees Wade's actions as part of a pre-existing plan to recruit an opponent for him.

Rumors have been circulating for some time that city councilman Lee Harris is mulling over a race for the 9th Congressional seat, and various Memphians report being contacted on behalf of a telephone "push poll" asking how Harris would do in a race against either state senator Ophelia Ford or Cohen.

Contacted about the matter, Harris, who is in New York attending a seminar, emailed this response: "My poll? Not mine. I'm not considering anything other than fighting to restore MATA funding, keep city fire stations open, and ultimately reelection in 2015. Anything else is flattering, but ultimately navel gazing."

UPDATE:Back in town on Tuesday, Harris disavowed any interest in challenging Cohen in 2014. "It would be crazy to do so," he said, citing the tramplings administered by the incumbent congressman to the likes of Nikki Tinker, Tomeka Hart, and Willie Herenton.

Harris was less inclined to rule out a race against state Senator Ford, and, while he continued to disclaim any responsibility for the telephone poll, he gave a series of evasive answers to the question of whether he had any advance knowledge of it, saying, "I don't want to speculate about that."

The name of Rep. Hardaway, who went on in 2012 to defeat Kernell, has also figured in speculation.

Behind all of this intrigue and conflict is the reality of Wade's loss in the 2010 sheriff's race, after which he, along with several other Democratic nominees, remained convinced by election commission glitches, which were either sinister or just bumbling and inconvenient, that the election was stolen.

Wade asked Cohen to back him up in a strenuous legal and political appeal process that involved several volatile mass meetings. The congressman did issue statements supporting the aggrieved Democratic candidates and challenged the election commission's bona fides.He also asked the U.S.Department of Justice to investigate, but, as both he and Wade concur, he did not underwrite the disputants' full course of public protests and legal stratagems.

As Cohen noted this week, the defeated Democrats succumbed by enough votes that the glitches by themselves would not seem to account for the outcome. Chancellor Arnold Goldin, ruling on the case later on, dismissed the Democrats' appeals.

Other issues would come up after that, creating further tension between the congressman and his aide, including what Wade said this week was Cohen's reluctance to use his influence in Nashville against new legislation establishing criteria for sheriffs' races that in effect grandfathered out Wade's law-enforcement experience and disqualified him from making another race.

In February, Wade resigned his position as Cohen's district director, issuing a brief statement talking of his "great pride" and "honor" in representing the 9th District but omitting any reference to Cohen.

It remains to be seen what comes next in that saga — or in the string of events that have bedevilled Cohen in the past few weeks, including the revelation of DNA tests establishing that he was not the father of a young Houston woman whom he introduced to the world last February as his newly discovered daughter by a former liaison.

The disclosure of non-parentage — known to be devastating to the congressman, who had publicly doted on the relationship and on the fact of having a family — was followed by press attention that was only intermittently sympathetic and tended, in certain quarters, to ridicule at Cohen's expense.

The Wade affair erupted just as things seemed to be setting down on that matter, and Cohen has found himself in the condition of the sorely put-upon man in the punch line of a joke who says, "It only hurts when I laugh."

To be continued (almost certainly).

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