A Busy Cohen Shows He's No Mere Talking Head 

BY JACKSON BAKER | JULY 21, 2007

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, 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 the 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 the national capital'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 Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

Well, it can't be said that Cohen isn't 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. Backed up by the likes of local AFSCME director Dorothy Crook, and Rebekah Jordan of the Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice, Cohen laid out the facts: Working full time at the minimum-wage level that has held for the last decade ($5.15), a head of household can make no more than $10,700 a year - "nearly $6,000 below the poverty level for a family of three."


The 'Rising Tide' Effect

As presidential candidate John Edwards had noted pointedly on his visit to Memphis last Monday night, Memphis - and the 9th District portion of it, in particular - is among the poorest per capita areas in the United States. The legislation just passed won't change the fact, but it will, as Cohen pointed out Friday, make a dent in it. The first of three minimum-wage increases, to $5.85, will take place next week, and it will be followed by two more 70-cent increases, in July 2008 and July 2009, respectively.

In two years' time, that will make the new minimum wage $7.25. Even adjusting for inflation and other factors, that's a real increase - one that, as Cohen and the other speakers noted, increases 115,000 Tennesseans directly and 350,000 altogether, considering the "rising tide" effect on incomes in general. African Americans, as Cohen said, will be major beneficiaries.

Though Cohen wasn't the author of the legislation, he has been an insistent supporter of minimum-wage increases, both as a state senator and as a congressman. As Crook pointed out, in words that were surely welcomed by the first-term congressman facing reelection next year, "In Nashville you worked hard for it, and I knew you would work hard for it in Washington."

Score one for the poor working folks of the 9th District.

Cohen took the opportunity at his press conference to declare his having had an influential role, along with his Nashville Democratic counterpart, Jim Cooper, in securing new funding for historically black colleges in the amount of $100 million , with another $25 million destined for graduate schools. What that meant for Memphis' financially beleaguered LeMoyne-Owen College, Cohen said, was no less than $500,000, a windfall sum for an institution struggling to stay alive.

Score one for a venerable institution considered central to the city's indigenous African-American culture.


A Line in the Sand

More? Cohen was asked at the press conference about another issue of more than usual importance to the white progressives who have formed a major and vocal part of his voter base over the years, never more so than in 2006 when, through their blogging arm, they went on offense against his major election foes. The Memphis congressman is one of 70 House members who wrote a letter to President 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."

Cohen, describing the resolve as a "line in the sand," made it clear that he and the 69 others (all Democrats except for maverick presidential candidate Ron Paul, a Republican) think the time is long gone for half measures, including some still favored by the congressional Democratic leadership as well as a plan put forward by Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander based on the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

Score one for the congressman's traditional liberal base in Midtown and East Memphis.

And at least two other recent Cohen efforts were responsible for some still discernible quantum waves. This past week he joined with Rep. 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.

Score one for the foes of governmental inefficiency, particularly as evidenced by the Bush administration's Katrina failures; that rather large category transcends party and race factors.

And there was FedEx chairman Fred Smith up there in Washington last week personally testifying before a Senate Finance Energy and Infrastructure subcommittee about his opposition to removing FedEx ground workers from the purview of the Railway Labor Act for collective bargaining purposes.

That was a reminder of Cohen's recent highly public break with other Democrats and with his normal labor allies in opposing passage of a House bill that contained the provision disliked by Smith but openly coveted by FedEx rival UPS and by the Teamsters union. Cohen's stance was a clear indication that he won't let ideology stand in the way of service to his district's major employer.

Score one for big local employer FedEx and for Cohen's grasp of economic realpolitik.


'It's logical. It's humane'

As recently as this weekend, Cohen, after being acquainted with the plight of foreign parents whose tourist visas in the United States will expire before they can complete medical care for their children, proposed a bill that would grant them special work permits to extend their stay and assist in financing the children's treatments, many of them at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

"I should hope it would have support. It's logical, it's humane," Cohen was quoted by USA Today. "I can't imagine anyone thinking this would be a security risk. It's just a humanitarian issue."

Score one for a major local hospital and for humanitarianism at large.

All in all, the congressman who has clearly devoted much energy and effort to raising his profile in the national consciousness has arguably been no less diligent in seeing to causes and issues that affect the people he was elected to represent. And the diversity of his efforts is impressive, as it was when, in the state Senate, he mixed gun-carry bills and liberalized drink measures in with the standard bread-and-butter positions expected of any card-carrying liberal Democrat.

(Some of that diversity may, of course, become fodder for Cohen's declared and potential adversaries - though it is hard to see how corporate attorney Nikki Tinker, say, could exploit the FedEx issue in her renewed efforts to seek the 9th District seat in 2008.)

Opponents may - and probably will - 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 how to do it.

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