Talk of Issues Took Back Seat to Race, Religion

Posted September 10, 2008 at 3:35pm

As much as we may not like to admit it, race and religion provide the undercurrent for a lot of what goes on in America — and they are important issues. But they are not the only ones.

Try as we might to have honest discussions on such important issues as education, health care, the economy and more, too often these conversations do not happen. Sometimes other issues — race and religion, for example — take precedence.

I believe that was the case in my recent campaign for the Democratic nomination for Congress from Tennessee’s 9th district, which ended with my television ads at the center of the debate. I wanted these ads to focus on issues, but instead the ads themselves became an issue.

Through the ads, I wanted to respond to Rep. Steve Cohen’s (D) challenge to voters to examine his voting record. The ads were never intended as an attack on race or religion or as an attempt to divide our community. But, if they did, I want to take responsibility and sincerely apologize for any pain they may have caused.

The fact is that I would have voiced the same concerns about any opponent with the same voting record, regardless of his nationality or religion. Yes, with the benefit of hindsight, I would have gone about it differently. But here is what we were trying to convey.

The “Park” ad came on the heels of the national apology for slavery that Congressman Cohen introduced and had passed. It was intended to contrast his vote only a few years before to keep the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and one of the first leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, in a Memphis park. It was never intended to connect Congressman Cohen to the KKK.

The ad was meant only to examine the voting record. In 2005, he voted one way. However, in 2007-08, while seeking re-election, it appeared as though he voted another way. Thus, the question, “Who is the real Steve Cohen?”

However, the ad clearly did not work out as intended. Nathan Bedford Forrest received all of the attention — not the voting record the ad was trying to examine.

The final ad was intended to inform voters of Congressman Cohen’s opposition as a state Senator to the Tennessee Religious Freedom Act of 1997, which sets the free speech and religious liberty rights of students to the extent permissible under the state establishment clause. The legislation was passed by the Tennessee General Assembly and signed by the governor.

The ad was denounced in some circles as being anti-Semitic. It was never meant to hurt or harm anyone of any faith. The legislation did not mention any religion, and neither did the ad. It was about the right of our children, regardless of their faith, to have a moment of prayer, and it was about Mr. Cohen’s vote on the issue. The reference to “our churches” was a reference to all churches and all denominations in Tennessee’s 9th district where Congressman Cohen has appeared (or been perceived as having appeared) for political purposes. It was never our intention to single anyone out.

I want to thank those who have offered e-mails, letters, text messages and phone calls of support. These are people who believe in me and my cause, and know there was no sinister motivation. I want to say again, however, that if these ads caused any pain as they appeared or as they were reported, then I am deeply sorry.

I am neither racist nor anti- Semitic, and anyone who knows me knows that is true. My career has been about fostering diversity and bringing people together. I feel so strongly about diversity that I made it a point to staff my campaign with people from all walks of life to ensure every group had a voice in my run for Congress.

Diversity is, and always has been, a hallmark of my career, something I have consistently fought for, and it is an important part of who I am. For several years, I taught diversity classes to employers throughout the country and led diversity discussions for organizations in Memphis, including the Memphis Bar Association. During the campaign I publicly denounced anti-Semitic campaign fliers on local news stations and in print, placed a personal video on my Web site denouncing anti- Semitic activity, stopped communicating with reporters who wanted to talk only about race and religion, and walked out on a National Public Radio interview when the interviewer was warned not to focus on race but did so anyway.

The issue is not about race, it is about economics. As long as there are educational and economic disparities that lead to health care and housing disparities, there will always be tension, especially if one race is affected more than another. These are the issues that I was trying to address — and that no one is discussing today. In those ads, I talked about the need for a school on transportation in Memphis (the transportation hub of the world), the need to truly improve the Second Chance program for ex-felons, and my desire for businesses to have an after-school program for their employees’ children to help them with math, science and other subjects necessary to make it to the next level.

Yet reporting on the Congressional race came down to race and religion and that was not my intent. I wanted to be heard on the substantive issues of the campaign — health care, Iraq, immigration and education — and I wanted to take the challenge offered by Congressman Cohen, to look closely at his voting record.

This has been an important lesson for me. I hope that our city and our nation will continue to work to engage in an open and honest dialogue on the issues that are most important to us — education, our economy, our national defense — and at the right time and the right place, the issues of race and religion.

Nikki Tinker, a lawyer, was a two-time candidate for the Democratic nomination in Tennessee’s 9th district.