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One of Rep. Steve Cohen’s first elections might have been his toughest.
He was then a newcomer to the field, one that faced tough odds and aimed for a position never held by someone so inexperienced.
But Cohen prevailed. In 1969, he was elected by his peers to be Vanderbilt University’s mascot: Mr. Commodore.
Traditionally, the mascot was played by a rising senior, but Cohen wanted it enough to go out for the position as a rising junior. It was a race without precedent — never before had an underclassman tried to become Mr. C, as students still call the mascot. But Cohen wasn’t daunted by the uphill battle.
“I went door to door in the freshman dorms and solicited votes,” the Tennessee Democrat said. There was a runoff election, and Cohen won by an estimated six to 10 votes.
Mr. C led cheers at sports games, greeted visiting teams and organized the cheerleaders.
“It was a position of honor,” Cohen said. “You had to be a good representation of the university.”
Cohen had served as his freshman class representative, worked on the student paper and was elected class president. But the job of Mr. C went above and beyond, requiring the kind of confidence it takes to stand up in front of thousands of people and raise morale when Vanderbilt was down. It was a tough job for Cohen, who was uncomfortable with public speaking.
“I had a lot of anxiety about speaking in front of crowds at that time,” he said.
To cure that anxiety, he tried out to be Mr. Commodore.
“I love sports, I wanted to go into politics, and this was a way to better prepare to speak in front of people,” he said.
As with any of his elections, part of Cohen’s appeal was in his platform.
“The previous [mascot] was a little goofy. I promised to bring dignity to Mr. Commodore and return it to the more respectful position it once was,” he said.
And after his election, Cohen set out to do just that. He changed the costume from black and gold to white and gold — “kind of symbolic of the negative to the positive,” he said — and focused on respecting Mr. C’s legacy.
Cohen made connections with prominent alumni and community members that helped him to manage the cheerleading squad, using those connections to fly the squad to an away football game on a private jet. And Cohen learned to cheer.