Lashing back at a group of Memphis clergymen who have made an issue of his vote for pending Hate Crimes legislation, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen said his critics have made Memphis "a laughing-stock" among his congressional colleagues -- notably members of the Congressional Black Caucus, most of whom back the measure.
Speaking to a luncheon of the Memphis Kiwanis Club at The Peabody on Wednesday, Cohen specifically cited statements of personal support from such African-American civil rights veterans as Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers of Michigan and John Lewis of Georgia.
The congressman singled out the Rev. LaSimba Gray, a politically active minister, as the moving force behind the protest of his vote, which took place back in May. "He didnt want me to run last year," said Cohen of Gray, who sought to find a consensus black candidate for the 9th District seat won by Cohen. The congressman noted further that Gray also expressed opposition, on racial grounds, when the then state senator first ran for the seat in 1996. "He thought it should be a 'black seat.'"
Cohen insisted that the bill, passed by the House and awaiting action in the Senate, does nothing more than apply additional criminal sanctions against violent acts undertaken against homosexuals and other specifically targeted groups, not against expression itself.
"Pastors can preach against anybody they want to so long as they arent beating up on somebody while theyre doing it," he said. "Nobodys ever been arrested for preaching. This is the United States of America," adding, "Some preachers don't understand Dr. [Martin Luther] King."
In the course of his remarks, Cohen also defended his vote, as he only House Democrat doing so, against labor-backed legislation that would remove FedEx ground workers from provisions of the Railway Labor Act and make the giant Memphis-based carrier more vulnerable to local strike actions.
On another matter, Cohen noted that he himself had voted against amendments to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that allowed relatively arbitrary wiretapping decisions by the Attorney General. But he said other Democrats had been maneuvered into voting for the amendments when the administration made an effort -- clearly regarded as questionable by Cohen -- to link the vote to possible imminent action by Al Quaeda.