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.
“I had never been a cheerleader in my life, but I was like a duck to water. I took the [microphone], led the cheers, gave speeches,” he said.
And he kept up morale. Cohen said he remembers a particularly rough football game at Tulane University in 1969 where he had to work to improve the spirits of even Vanderbilt’s chancellor.
“It was cold, drizzling rain, and there were very few people there from either Tulane or Vanderbilt,” he said.
Fans were sparse, Vanderbilt fans sparser, filling only a portion of the stadium up to the 20th row. It looked like Vanderbilt had no chance. But Cohen, true to Mr. C form, held out hope for the team.
“I was sitting next to our chancellor, and I said to him, ‘We’re gonna win the game,’” he remembered.
And Vanderbilt did, 26-23. His morale-boosting efforts did not go unnoticed — he received a letter from the chancellor a few weeks later, commending him for his optimism.
But there were times when being Mr. C wasn’t so glum. When Vanderbilt beat the University of Alabama in 1969 — even though it seemed that there was no way Vanderbilt was going to compete — Cohen remembers the celebration being outstanding.
“After the game, I went around my frat and to other parties, and everyone wanted to wear the [mascot] hat,” he said.
As Mr. C, Cohen also got to meet some of the best college athletes of the time. When Pete Maravich, a five-time NBA all-star player and then a student at Louisiana State University, came to play the Commodores, Cohen couldn’t help but be starstruck.
“When he came in with his team to scope the court, I asked if he wouldn’t pause for a second when we shook hands so I could get a picture,” he said.
That picture — Cohen in his white jacket and gold epaulets, shaking Maravich’s hand — hangs on the wall of his Longworth office.
Cohen relinquished the Mr. C uniform upon graduating, but his time as Vanderbilt’s mascot has stuck with him since, even informing his political career.
“It taught me about politics, campaigning, taking a demographic route that’s not always solicited,” he said.
But, most significantly, it got him accustomed to speaking in front of crowds in a way that would prepare him to speak on the House floor today. Cohen said his time as Mr. C gave him the confidence he needed to pursue his political aspirations.
“It helped me overcome being nervous” when speaking in public, he said.