After a lengthy delay, during which Nikki Tinker and her supporters became visibly restless, the feminist PAC Emily's List last week conferred its endorsement on the 9th District congressional challenger, whom it had also backed during Tinker's first try for the office in 2006.
One probable reason for the organization's hesitation was a highly organized lobbying campaign against such an endorsement, conducted for months by several long-term local feminists who support incumbent Democrat Steve Cohen and who cited to Emily's List Cohen's lengthy record of support, both as state senator and as congressman, for women's causes.
During the multi-candidate Democratic primary of 2006, Tinker got a considerable boost from fund-raising efforts and late-term advertising on her behalf by Emily's List (the name is derived from the acronym for "Early Money Is Like Yeast"). The organization also made a point of distributing flyers attacking ultimate winner Cohen, who would go on to win the general election against two opponents.
As the press release announcing its endorsement of Tinker noted, the corporate attorney came within six points of leader Cohen in the 2006 primary. The release credited Tinker with "the passion and experience needed to get results in Washington, D.C." and made reference to her "work in the business sector," service as "a civil rights attorney," and stint as campaign manager for former congressman Harold Ford Jr., among other points.
"If elected," noted the release, "Tinker will be the first African-American woman elected to Congress from Tennessee and the youngest African-American woman currently serving in the House."
Predictably, Tinker proclaimed that she was "proud to receive this endorsement." Equally unsurprising was adverse reaction from the Cohen camp. The congressman's campaign manager, Jerry Austin, noted, "They spent half-a-million dollars roughing up Steve in 2006 and couldn't beat him." Austin said numerous women supporting Cohen countered "in the best way possible; they stopped writing checks to Emily's List."
Cohen supporters contributed to a lengthy and impassioned "comments" thread when news of the endorsement was posted on the Flyer website. And it drew recriminations from several former devotees of Emily's List and its largely pro-choice agenda.
Typical was Libby De Caetani, a Democratic activist and longtime Memphian who had just completed a move to Asheville, North Carolina, but who got wind of the matter and responded heatedly in a message sent to each member of the Emily's List governing board.
Expressing "shock and disappointment," De Caetani characterized Cohen as "a strongly progressive and popular" congressman with "an A-plus record on women's reproductive rights" who had been newly recognized by an award from Planned Parenthood. She continued: "All I can guess now is that you have willfully chosen to waste good money and effort on a candidate who lacks leadership and substance, is a lackey of the airline industry, has no record of community service and has NEVER said publicly that she supports legislation that ensures women's reproductive rights."
Ironically, Cohen had just been the beneficiary during the previous week of a well-attended "Women for Cohen" fund-raiser at the Elliot Perry loft downtown. One of his campaign co-chairs, legendary civil rights activist Maxine Smith, also figures in a newly launched billboard campaign on the congressman's behalf.
In the wake of the Emily's List action, several Cohen supporters wondered if the congressman, a supporter of presidential candidate Barack Obama, had inadvertently invited it by a recent quip comparing Obama's never-say-die rival Hillary Clinton to the maniacally determined character played by actress Glenn Close in A Fatal Attraction. Longtime boosters of the former state senator and freshman congressman know well Cohen's tendency to improvise stand-up comedy lines. Indeed, his wit is regarded as a vital part of his legislative arsenal — as well as being a potential Achilles' heel.
In the case at hand, Cohen had been quick to make an apology, conveying "great respect" for Senator Clinton and continuing, "She has waged a historic campaign which has done much to break the glass ceiling. My comments obviously do not reflect the sentiments of Senator Obama or the Obama campaign. Nor do they reflect my opinion of Senator Clinton whom I have known for years and admire. My hope is that our party will come together to work to defeat John McCain."
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