Come next year, 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen is almost sure to have opponents in his bed for a sixth straight election to House of Representatives — one (at least) in the Democratic primary and another running as a Republican nominee in the fall election.
Whoever these opponents turn out to be are likely to be wasting their time. Since Cohen, then a longtime state Senator, won his first congressional race in 2006, he's easily turned away all comers in the Democratic primary, many of them bearing famous political names, by prohibitive margins ranging from a mere 2 to 1 to 8 to 1.
As for the obligatory biennial Republican challenge to Cohen's reelection, those pro forma efforts usually get the GOP candidate no more than a third of Cohen's total. This is in a district that is both overwhelmingly Democratic and overwhelming African American — the former of which Cohen is, the latter of which he isn't (though the Republican sacrificial victim for each of the past two elections was).
All of which is to note that Cohen, who has a fair share of influence in Washington, for that matter (see next page), has standing in Memphis, and increasingly he is willing to put it on the line in favor of this or that candidate running for office.
Cohen has issued several endorsements in the 2015 Memphis city election, each of them in a race that is close enough for the congressman's choice to matter.
The most important endorsement — for incumbent Mayor A C Wharton, who has serious opposition for reelection— came last week, a most opportune time for Wharton, who a) faced the unpredictable fallout of a crisis involving former city planning czar Robert Lipscomb, whom the mayor effectively discharged after Lipscomb became the central figure in a scandal; and b) was demonstrated in a Commercial Appeal poll to have only a narrow lead (30 percent to 25 percent) over Councilman Jim Strickland, his closest competitor.
(The same poll showed Councilman Harold Collins and Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams to be tied with 12 percent each.)
The congressman made it a point to say kind words about Strickland, whom he called a "friend," but said Wharton's experience, passion for progress, and reputation in Washington and other "circles outside Memphis" all made him the right choice.
Cohen's other endorsements could also shift voter sentiment. In the District 5 City Council race where, it is generally conceded, any of five candidates have enough potential strength to get into a runoff election, the congressman has opted in favor of youthful attorney John Marek, his former campaign manager and one of three serious contenders (the others: Charles "Chooch" Pickard and Mary Wilder) for the district's "progressive" vote.
The congressman's other public choices are for: Mickell Lowery, who hopes to succeed his father, longtime Councilman and current Chairman Myron Lowery, in a Super District 8, Position 3 seat that is also sought by former School Board member Martavius Jones and Jacqueline Camper; and another former school board member, Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr., who is in a hotly contested race for the Super District 9, Position 2 seat with four other candidates.
As indicated, all these races are close enough to be influenced by Cohen, the ranking non-mayoral city politician, and, collectively, the outcomes in each of them could be a significant yardstick for measuring the extent of the congressman's coattails.
• Meanwhile, even as Cohen is putting his local clout to the test, he is getting kudos nationally as having been a significant congressional player in the battle over sustaining the deal that President Obama and other Western leaders have cut with Iran to restrain that country's drive toward acquiring nuclear capability.
In a Washington Post article of Thursday, September 3rd, Cohen is singled out as one of the Jewish members of Congress who had stood out in resisting strenuous efforts by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself to have the Iran deal fail of congressional support.
The article cites Cohen as having described "weathering a barrage of attacks from passionately opposed constituents and others on social media, who questioned his religion, his intelligence, and called him a kapo — a term used to describe prisoners of Nazi concentration camps who were assigned to supervise forced labor. ..."
Cohen is quoted as saying that Netanyahu's acceptance of an invitation from Republican leaders to speak against the deal before a congressional joint session, "without the president's knowledge and/or approval," had backfired.
"Having him come and try to influence the members of the Congress and lobby against what the president was working on set the tenor," Cohen said. "Netanyahu should not get himself involved in American politics in the future, and AIPAC played a stronger hand than they should have."
• Cohen was by no means alone last week in attempting to influence voter judgment in the forthcoming city election by means of endorsement. The Shelby County Republican Party steering committee met last Thursday night to consider the prospect of endorsements and emerged with majority votes for six endorsees.
As has been its practice in recent election years, the local GOP guiding body cherry-picked from the full ballot, only selecting in specific races. The steering committee's picks:
• City Council, District 2 — Frank Colvett Jr.
• City Council, District 5 — Dan Springer
• Council Super District 9 Position 1 — Kemp Conrad
• Council Super District 9, Position 2 — Philip Spinosa
• Council Super District 9, Position 3 — Reid Hedgepeth
• Mayor — Jim Strickland
The choice of Strickland, who addressed the committee, was technically a "recommendation" rather than an endorsement — a fact presumably stemming from the fact of Strickland's having been the Shelby County Democratic chairman for a year in the mid-'90s.
Strickland's partisan activity has been largely dormant during his council years, however, and there had been little doubt of his popularity with the GOP rank and file, who turned out in quantity for his July headquarters opening in Poplar Plaza.
Lynn Moss also had a fair amount of support for the Super District 9, Position 2 endorsement, but the real battle on the steering committee was between Springer, who is especially well-regarded among Republican office holders, and newcomer Worth Morgan, who has significant support in business circles.
No word yet as to whether the Shelby County Democratic Executive Committee intends to make its own endorsements.
• As a reminder, the aforesaid Whalum has an endorsement list of his own — an "education slate" of council candidates he hopes to sweep into office along with him. They are: Detric Golden in District 1; Keith Williams in District 3; Kristin Cheers in District 4; Marek in District 5; Anthony Anderson in District 7; and Victoria E. Young in Super District 8, Position 2.
(For earlier endorsements by the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce JOBS PAC, the AFL-CIO Labor Council, the Tennessee Equality Project, and others, see Politics Beat blog, memphisflyer.com.)
• Rotary Debates: Candidates for the Super District 9, Position 2 seat will be featured in a forum of the Rotary Club of Memphis at noon next Tuesday at the University Club on Central Avenue.
The candidates are: Whalum; Spinosa; Moss; Stephanie Gatewood; and Paul Shaffer.
One week later, September 22nd, will see the traditional Rotary mayoral debate, always a culminating feature of a city election year. The participants will be Wharton, Strickland, Collins, and Williams. Same venue, same time: high noon.