Cohen the Barbarian 

The weekend showcased a congressman seemingly sanctioned to storm the gates.

Successful politicians come in all shapes, sizes, and varieties. To consider merely two species at either end of the spectrum, there is the Elvis type, who pleases himself by pleasing you. One such is Bill Clinton, who gives good energy in even the most casual encounter and, after shaking a thousand hands, will gladly look for a thousand more. And there is the Bob Dylan type, who pleases you by pleasing himself.

Ninth District congressman Steve Cohen is more the latter type. When he has something to say or do that interests or delights him, he says or does it and gambles that you'll be just as tickled with it as he is. This trait prompted Ed Cromer, editor of The Tennessee Journal and an attentive watcher during most of the former state senator's lengthy tenure in the legislature, to bestow on Cohen the title of "wittiest" member of the General Assembly.

It is a trait which also causes Cohen some potential grief, as when, during his 2008 run for reelection, he couldn't resist entertaining, first, a television crew and, later, a sizable audience of county Democrats at the annual Kennedy Day dinner with his comparison of Hillary Clinton, then doggedly stalking Democratic presidential-primary leader Barack Obama, to the maniacal Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction.

That such a trope would ruffle the feelings of Clinton supporters (at the time roughly half the Democratic population) and subject Cohen to accusations of sexism at a time when he had a reasonably well-funded female opponent in the Democratic primary, Nikki Tinker, seemed either not to have occurred to Cohen or, in any case, not to have deterred him.

Later in the campaign year it occurred to Cohen to say out loud that Jesus Christ had been a "community organizer" like then candidate Obama, while Pontius Pilate had been a "governor." The latter comparison was taken as a gibe at Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate.

Both comparisons got ample national publicity, much of it witless, literal-minded, and accusatory — enough so that Cohen was forced to backtrack somewhat in both instances without exactly recanting.

Cohen's staffers and other observers have learned to discern the warning signs that a controversial statement may be gestating within the congressman. The remaining strands of hair atop his increasingly bald pate frizz up as if in response to some electrical thought impulse. (Skeptics are invited to consult the video of Cohen's Jesus/Pontius Pilate remarks on the floor of the House.)

The hair-raising phenomenon may have more general application, however. It was frequently on view during a sprightly town meeting on Saturday at Christian Brothers University, held jointly by Cohen and his current mentor, Representative John Conyers of Detroit, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, of which Cohen has become a conspicuous member.

Conyers, a longtime fixture in Washington and the first member of Congress to have introduced an impeachment of Richard Nixon during the Watergate crisis, would be the recipient, largely under Cohen's aegis, of an "I Am a Man" award at the annual April 4th Foundation dinner held later Saturday in honor of the late Martin Luther King.

At the CBU event, Conyers made it a point to tell the audience, "You've got the right guy working for you in Congress." And both he and Cohen kept the electricity churning with cutting-edge statements that went well beyond the cautious and the customary (see Fly-By, p. 9). The venerable Conyers underscored his solidarity with Cohen by frequently prefacing his policy statements with such formulations as, "Congressman Cohen and Congressman Conyers believe ... ."

Notably, the two congressmen are co-sponsors of a single-payer health-care proposal calling for direct governmental administration and bypassing the more complicated and politically circumspect schemes suggested by others, including President Obama.

It was a good weekend for Cohen, one in which he figured in several events around town. On Friday night at the Cannon Center, he had been one of the recipients, along with the Rev. Keith Norman and businessman Art Gilliam, of the Candle on the Bluff awards given annually in Dr. King's honor by New Olivet Baptist Church and the Morehouse College Alumni Association.

And in yet another Saturday event, at the University of Memphis, Cohen loomed large in a panel discussion on Memphis politics held in connection with the Hooks Institute's weekend conference on "The Obama Phenomenon."

The conference had been focused on the conjunction of race and politics, but the four panelists — Tom Jones, Susan Adler Thorp, Tyson Pratcher, and Marcus Pohlmann — seemed to concur that Cohen's four-to-one reelection victory last year over a well-funded black opponent in a historically African-American district owed much to his uniqueness and independence — indeed, his sheer brazenness — as a political force.

In their assessment, Cohen came off as something of an authorized barbarian storming the gates of a moribund political establishment. It is a characterization that the middle-aged but still impish congressman would surely not disavow.

Equal time provision? It is a given that Josh Pastner, the new basketball coach hired by the University of Memphis, has a hard act to follow in the quasi-legendary John Calipari, whose assistant he had been for the last year. In all fairness, the 31-year-old Pastner is surely entitled to the same divine guidance that was invoked semi-officially for his predecessor last week.

The Shelby County Commission opened its session of March 30th with an invocation by the Rev. Mark Edge of Bethel Pentecostal Church, who, after asking for the Almighty's "unseen sovereign hand" to guide the commission, concluded, "Father, seriously, we are asking as well if you could convince our good coach Calipari to stay in Memphis. We would appreciate it."

"Amen!" concurred commission chair Deidre Malone on behalf of the generally good-humored body. And, after the Pledge of Allegiance, vice chair Joyce Avery, in presenting Edge with a plaque commemorating his service as chaplain-of-the-day, added, "And I, too, say, 'God, please let Calipari stay!'"

• Malone's long-rumored candidacy for Shelby County mayor became semi-official this week with the announcement by longtime activist Norma Lester of a forthcoming "kick-off" event for her candidacy for the District 2, Position 3, seat now held by Malone.

Lester, a retired nurse and veteran member of the local Democratic establishment, is unlikely to have made such a commitment without the tacit understanding that Malone's political ambition is directed elsewhere.

Clay Perry, currently an administrative assistant to the commission, has signaled his intent to run for the Probate Court clerk position being vacated by incumbent Chris Thomas, who plans a run for the District 4, Position 1, commission seat now held by the term-limited Avery. Also likely to seek the Probate Court clerk's position is Danny Kail, the chief labor negotiator for Shelby County government.

• The Cordova Leadership Council played host last week at Homebuilders on Germantown Parkway to the first public meeting of Wharton's "listening tour" dealing with issues of consolidation. Brian Stephens of the council served as emcee for the event, which saw Sheriff Mark Luttrell, newly announced for reelection, also making a presentation and fielding questions concerning law enforcement matters.

In effect, the listening tour, preamble to a contemplated consolidation referendum on the 2010 general election ballot, is one of two campaigns the county mayor will be running for the time being, more or less simultaneously. A "unity prayer breakfast" has been scheduled next month at the Cannon Center on behalf, it would seem, of Wharton's campaign for city mayor, already announced and under way.

At Homebuilders, Wharton fielded the usual run of questions about consolidation from the overwhelmingly suburban audience and gave versions of his usual answers. Only one question went unanswered, though so adroitly did Wharton deflect it that almost no one noticed the fact. After wondering out loud, "What's in it for me?" a woman demanded to know. "Is this a political move?"

The county mayor had been able to route his reply along other procedural lines, but, reminded of the question afterward, he noted that the consolidation referendum would precede the city mayor's race and chuckled, "Political? It's the very opposite of that!"

He chose not to mention that if incumbent city mayor Willie Herenton had been successful in his bid last year to resume the superintendency of city schools, an effort which involved the advance consultation and support of Wharton, that sequence would have been reversed.

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