Politics » Politics Feature

Disputed Calls

Cohen vs. Flinn and the city council's debate on sexual orientation.

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Call it coincidence, call it synchronicity, call it what you will. But it was more than a mite interesting when I got a call Monday night from 9th District Democratic congressman Steve Cohen responding to an inquiry of mine about an attack on him in a press release from the campaign of his Republican opponent, George Flinn.

As it happened, Cohen, an inveterate sports fan, was simultaneously watching the end of Monday night's NFL game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, one which ended on a questionable ruling by substitute officials, turning what was clearly a Packer interception into a Seahawk touchdown and robbing Green Bay of a victory. Cohen told it like it was: "Bad call!"

Unsurprisingly, he had the same reaction to the Flinn press release, which accused him of improperly taking credit for a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration. Earlier on Monday, the congressman had taken part, along with Airport Authority president Larry Cox and other officials, in a ceremony announcing the receipt of a $31.8 million grant from the FAA "to be used for runway safety, pavement and security projects at Memphis International Airport."

In a later press release about the occasion, Cohen had termed the grant "a great accomplishment for the Memphis International Airport," and said, "These new federal funds will help ensure that the airport can continue its long history as our nation's premier cargo airport."

The Flinn campaign fired off its own press release later in the day, this one noting that the funds were provided through the auspices of the FAA's Airport Improvement Program, which, said the Flinn release, was "part of $3.35 billion in funding that was part of the FAA Reauthorization Bill (HR 658)," a bill signed into law by President Obama earlier this year.

But, said the Flinn release, Cohen had voted against the FAA Reauthorization Bill, both in the original House consideration of the measure in 2011 and in the form of a conference report (a final version agreed on by the House and Senate) this year.

Further, said the release, "[t]he Flinn Campaign has also learned that none of the other members of the Tennessee Congressional Delegation from the Memphis metropolitan area, all of whom actually voted for the grant funds, were invited to the press conference. ... Steve Cohen had a chance to show unity with the delegation representing Memphis, Shelby County, and surrounding areas, but instead chose to stand alone and lay claim to their work and their votes."

This, too, was a bad call, said the congressman. Noting a misspelling and a grammatical lapse in the Flinn campaign's release, Cohen termed it "obviously amateurish." Beyond that, he said that he had never claimed to have been responsible for the FAA grant or to have voted for the Reauthorization Bill. He said his appearance at the morning grant announcement was dictated by the fact that the airport was in his district and that he was pleased for obvious reasons by the grant. Cohen said that he had voted for "22 of the previous 23 extensions" of the FAA before this year's long-delayed reauthorization bill, and the improvements involved in the grant announced on Monday may have been contained or anticipated in those versions.

The congressman, who at one time had introduced language into the bill to spur development of an "aerotropolis transportation system" at Memphis International Airport, also acknowledged that, as the Flinn press release had said, he had originally been a co-sponsor of the FAA Reauthorization Bill. "It was not originally a labor-bashing bill, but it became that way, and I ended up opposing it," he said.

The Congressional Record shows that the bill passed the House in April 2011 on a strict party-line basis by a vote of 223 to 196, with only two Democrats voting for it, presumably because the bill contained controversial provisions imposing new restrictions on unions.

In February of this year, a House-Senate conference version of the bill passed 248-169 and garnered 24 votes from House Democrats, one of whom was Jim Cooper of Tennessee's 5th District (Nashville), the only other Tennessee Democrat in the House besides Cohen. Like Cohen, Cooper had voted no in April 2011.

The bill was subsequently signed into law by President Obama, who had also opposed its labor provisions but apparently accepted the conference report as the best version available and one that might help stimulate job growth.

More illuminating than the different interpretations of the situation by Cohen and the Flinn campaign is what it augurs for the future. Most observers see Flinn as the longest of long shots as a Republican in a district which, even after GOP-imposed redistricting, is still heavily Democratic, while Cohen, who has dusted off his last several opponents handily, is fresh from a 9-to-1 primary trouncing of Tomeka Hart, a name opponent, in the Democratic primary.

But former county commissioner Flinn, a wealthy physician and broadcast magnate, has money to burn and may well do so into the millions, as he has in several previous unsuccessful races for county mayor, city council, and the 8th District congressional seat.

And the FAA affair demonstrates that Flinn apparently intends to contest Cohen at every turn.

• Another local matter, long in dispute, continues to go unresolved. This is the question of a proposed city council ordinance banning discrimination in employment by the city on grounds including age, disability, country of origin, ethnicity, and the controversial matter of sexual orientation.

The issue came up at last week's council meeting in the form of Councilman Lee Harris' amendment to his own ordinance enlarging the ban on such discrimination. And, though the necessary seven votes were found for passage — including a surprise one from conservative councilman Reid Hedgepeth — the proposal was derailed, at least temporarily, by a legal opinion from city attorney Herman Morris that the changes it entailed required an amendment to the city charter, obtainable only through referendum.

To be on the safe side, several supporters of the amendment joined opponents in voting to hold off on a final vote for a 30-day pause period, during which the legal issues will be further researched. Councilman Shea Flinn, a longtime advocate of explicit workplace protection for gays, professed to be optimistic that no referendum will be needed.

The major back-story of this latest development, which clearly blindsided Harris and supporters of his sexual-orientation amendment, was the explicit role played by the administration of Mayor A C Wharton in retarding an immediate vote — reportedly out of concerns that passage of so sweeping an amendment would tilt the balance of power in city government significantly in the council's direction.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Equality Project, spearheaded locally by Jonathan Cole, held a weekend rally in support of such legislation at the Parthenon in Nashville.

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