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Updated Feb. 11, 2010
Few members of Congress have had to deal with the volatile subject of race and politics more in recent years than Cohen, a white, liberal Democrat who is in his second term representing the Memphis-based, majority-black 9th District. And after facing rough-and-tumble primary campaigns in both 2006 and 2008, he is awaiting final word about whether he'll draw a third in 2010 from a powerful but controversial African-American figure: former longtime Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.
Cohen, a veteran of the state Senate, first won for the U.S. House in the 2006 election for the seat Democrat Harold Ford Jr. left open for a Senate bid that narrowly failed. Ford and his father, Harold Ford Sr., who preceded him in the seat, had provided the district with more than 30 consecutive years of black representation.
The primary campaign was crowded and contentious, with Cohen the only major white candidate among more than a dozen Democrats running for the seat. But he won a plurality to secure the nomination and then cruised to victory that fall in a district that has long been a Democratic stronghold.
Cohen's election did not sit well with some black leaders in the district, who believed the seat should be held by an African American. A few of those leaders tried to oust Cohen in the 2008 primary by uniting behind one black candidate, attorney Nikki Tinker, who had finished second in the 2006 Democratic primary.
But Tinker alienated many voters with a harshly negative campaign including ads that sought to associate Cohen, who is Jewish, with the Ku Klux Klan. Cohen drew support during the campaign from several Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus members, including John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Jesse L. Jackson Jr. of Illinois, and trounced Tinker by 79 percent to 19 percent.
Despite that showing, Cohen may have to sweat out a primary contest again in 2010.
Herenton, who was elected five times as mayor before stepping down earlier this year, surprised the Memphis political community when he announced that he would challenge Cohen and filed for the race in June.
But while he's popular, Herenton has legal issues. He was been the subject of a federal grand jury investigation for some of his business transactions during his time as mayor, but the panel disbanded in December 2009 without issuing an indictment. Herenton's campaign manager contended that the probe was bogus and politically motivated and insisted that Herenton would continue with his congressional bid.
With a name familiar to most 9th District voters, Herenton would have an instant impact if he does indeed pursue a full-scale challenge. But he raised questions by not raising any money by the end of last year.
By contrast, Cohen raised $618,000, which when added to leftover money from his 2008 campaign left him with a cash-on-hand nest egg of more than $1 million when this year began. He has held a fundraising event with the elder Harold Ford, who represented the 9th District for more than 20 years before being succeeded by his son. The Ford family has a long-running political rivalry with Herenton.
District Profile from Politics in America
The 9th takes in most of the state's largest city, Memphis, which sits atop the Mississippi River bluffs. Memphis is 63 percent African-American, and the 9th has by far the largest black population of any district statewide. Traditional GOP voters gravitated to the outskirts of Shelby County, making the 9th the most comfortably Democratic district in Tennessee and resulting in a decade of overall population loss from the district.
Memphis is the most populous city along the Mississippi and uses its central location between St. Louis and New Orleans, as well as Memphis International Airport, to thrive as a distribution center. The world's second-busiest cargo airport behind only Hong Kong International Airport, it hosts FedEx's global hub. FedEx and the presence of several passenger carriers based at the airport have boosted the region's economy, and local residents hope that Southwest Airlines' entrance into the market here will spur further growth. AutoZone, the nation's largest auto parts retailer, has headquarters in the 9th. The district also depends on St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and a local health care industry.
Renewal efforts have paved the way for some inner-city economic development and new residential communities downtown. Tourism is a mainstay for the 9th, and both the FedExForum and Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium draw audiences. Music-minded Memphis visitors take in Beale Street, and tourists flock here to honor two icons -- Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, which is now a civil rights museum.
The area first sent an African-American to Congress in 1974, initiating a reign of Democratic black political power in Memphis. Although local elections still tend to be decided along racial lines, residents historically vote for any Democrat in federal races. The 9th has favored Democratic candidates in U.S. House races with at least 60 percent of the vote for decades. In 2008, Barack Obama took 77 percent of the district's vote for president, by far his highest percentage in the state.
Distribution, health care, tourism
Memphis (pt.), 546,327; Collierville (pt.), 10,559
Graceland was the home of Elvis Presley.
|2010||general||Steve Cohen (D)||99,827||74%|
|Charlotte Bergmann (R)||33,879||25.1%|
|Sandra Sullivan (I)||673||0.5%|
|Perry Steele (I)||528||0.4%|
|2008||general||Steve Cohen (D)||198,798||87.8%|
|Jake Ford (I)||11,003||4.9%|
|Dewey Clark (I)||10,047||4.4%|
|Mary Wright (I)||6,434||2.8%|
|2006||general||Steve Cohen (D)||103,341||59.9%|
|Jake Ford (I)||38,243||22.2%|
|Mark White (R)||31,002||18%|
|2004||general||Harold Ford (D)||190,648||82%|
|Ruben Fort (R)||41,578||17.9%|
|2002||general||Harold Ford (D)||120,904||83.8%|
|Tony Rush (I)||23,208||16.1%|
|2008||Barack Obama: 77%||John McCain: 23%|
|2004||John Kerry: 70%||George W. Bush: 29%|
|2000||Al Gore: 72%||George W. Bush: 27%|