Politics » Politics Feature

Keeping Busy

Ninth District congressman Cohen demonstrates he isn't just a talking head.


p> It is surely obvious by now that 9th District congressman Steve Cohen is going to be a frequent flyer on YouTube and the network and cable broadcasts and, for that matter, will be grounded in print via choice quotations in major newspapers and magazines.

All that is assured by the longtime state senator's stage presence, his concern for timely issues, and his way with words, which caused The Tennessee Journal recently to lament the absence of "the wittiest" member of the state legislature.

Add to that an apparent instinct for finding his mark among Washington, D.C.'s power players and on the crowded beltway media stage and what can only be described as an innate anti-bashfulness, and you begin to see why Cohen is rapidly putting in the shade the admittedly impressive benchmarks for celebrity established by his predecessor, former Representative Harold Ford Jr.

Faced with a certain challenge in 2008 from at least one opponent, corporate attorney Nikki Tinker, his 2006 runner-up, Cohen is also making a serious effort to touch all the bases important to his constituency. Make that "constituencies." The congressman's appearance at a press conference in front of the federal building on Friday highlighted several major issues — each relating to a different component of the base that he hopes will reelect him next year.

The stated purpose of the press conference was to announce a just-enacted congressional increase in the minimum wage.

Three increases over a two-year period, beginning this week, will raise the minimum wage from the current $5.15 to $7.25, affecting 115,000 Tennesseans directly and 350,000 altogether. African Americans, as Cohen did not fail to note, will be major beneficiaries.

As Dorothy Crook of AFSCME, standing alongside Cohen, pointed out in words the candidate for reelection had to be pleased by, "In Nashville, you worked hard for it, and I knew you would work hard for it in Washington."

Cohen also took the opportunity at his press conference to mention the role played by himself and his Nashville Democratic counterpart, Jim Cooper, in securing $125 million in new funding for historically black colleges. What that meant for Memphis' financially beleaguered LeMoyne-Owen College, Cohen said, was no less than $500,000.

More? Asked about an issue of key importance to his white liberal supporters, Cohen owned up to being one of 70 House members who wrote a "line-in-the-sand" letter to George Bush declaring that they "will only support appropriating additional funds for U.S. military operations in Iraq during Fiscal Year 2008 and beyond for the protection and safe redeployment of all our troops out of Iraq before you leave office."

And at least two other recent Cohen efforts were responsible for some still discernible quantum waves. This past week, he joined with Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, chair of a House Transportation subcommittee overseeing FEMA, in a widely noted letter blasting the agency for wasting $67 million worth of ice that was meant for Katrina rescue but never got used.

There was also Cohen's recent highly public break with other Democrats and with his normal labor allies in opposing passage of a House bill that contained a collective-bargaining provision disliked by FedEx founder Fred Smith but openly coveted by rival UPS and the Teamsters union.

Even potential adversaries might have to concede the diligence of these efforts and their diversity, reminiscent of his often surprising range in the state Senate, where he mixed gun-carry bills and liberalized drink measures in with the standard bread-and-butter positions expected of any card-carrying liberal Democrat.

Opponents may say that the congressman's motives on the legislative and constituent fronts are largely, if not completely, political. Maybe so, maybe no; in any case, one hears that politicians customarily do just that: practice politics. Indeed, they presumably are elected to do that. And the last several days have contained several practical demonstrations that Steve Cohen, no mere talking head he, knows a thing or two about how to do it.

For an expanded version of this column in "Political Beat," go here.

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