Tinker Trying to Rewrite the Truth Even After Losing

Posted September 17, 2008 at 6:27pm

Last week, Roll Call ran a Guest Observer authored by Nikki Tinker, one of my opponents in the recent Democratic primary race for the 9th district of Tennessee (“Talk of Issues Took Back Seat to Race, Religion” ). The article had previously been published, almost in the same form, in the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, and the reader reaction to it demonstrated that Tinker’s “apology” was perceived as neither genuine nor accurate.

However, I believe that the readers of Roll Call are not as likely to understand the proper context of Tinker’s references because I suspect they did not follow the election as closely as 9th district voters, making the publication of her opinion piece misleading and confusing. Additionally, Tinker’s faux mea culpa really just provides her another opportunity to reiterate her scurrilous campaign attacks.

Tinker’s desire to repair her public image is understandable, considering her campaign ads were repudiated in the national press. Tinker disingenuously claims she tried to steer clear of the issues of race and religion in her campaign. One ad featured a photo of me juxtaposed with a photo of a Klansman. The fact that Jews, along with African-Americans, have been targeted by the Ku Klux Klan seems to have eluded Tinker’s grasp, but it made the attack all the more repugnant to me. Another ad accused me of opposing a child’s right to pray in school, the latter being a reference to a vote I cast while in the Tennessee Senate against legislation that did nothing to change the law and was not in the purview of that legislative body, the issue having previously been determined by the Supreme Court.

While the fact of my Jewish heritage did not factor into the KKK ad, it took center stage in the prayer ad that ran simultaneously. The ad included a child intoning “now I lay me down to sleep” while a woman’s voice bemoans my being against prayer: “[W]hile he’s going into OUR churches, clapping his hands and tapping his feet. …” The emphasis on OUR was not added by me but was a part of the ad.

The ad was widely interpreted as being anti-Semitic and was also seen as being racially divisive. On Aug. 9, Bob Herbert devoted his entire column in the New York Times to Tinker’s ads, which he labeled “spurious” and “bizarre.” Herbert clarified that I have never voted against school prayer, which is a constitutional issue decided by the Supreme Court.

Tinker claims that both ads were an examination of my record and therefore valid. However, when she was asked, in the only debate in which she agreed to participate, if there was any vote I had cast in Congress with which she disagreed, she did not name even one.

Still, Tinker predicates the defense of her ads on the argument that my sponsorship of H.Res. 194, the apology for slavery and Jim Crow laws, occurred merely for political gain and that the passage of the resolution was timed to influence the election. The truth is that I filed the slavery apology in February 2007 and worked from that time until its final passage to get it scheduled for a vote. That I seized the opportunity for it to be on the floor calendar when the opportunity arose might be a concept difficult for Tinker, who has never held any elected position, to comprehend.

What she does not mention, but which I have made very clear, is that I have favored an apology for slavery and Jim Crow laws by the federal government for many years, having written to President Bill Clinton in 1997 urging his support. While I considered postponing the bill to avert politicization of the issue, I feared that should I not take advantage of the chance to pass the bill, there might not be another opportunity this year, as the House is scheduled to adjourn Sept. 26. Passage of this historical measure was long overdue, and I did not want to contribute to any further delay.

However, this was the reason, according to Tinker, for her questioning a vote that I cast as a member of the Center City Commission, a citizen committee. Neither Tinker’s article nor her ad identified in what capacity I cast the vote, letting the reader assume that it might have been cast on substantive and legitimate legislation on an issue within the jurisdiction of an elected body. After all, I served 24 years in the state Senate and it would be reasonable to assume that’s where the vote occurred.

Here are the facts: The Center City Commission, which did not have jurisdiction or authority to do so, voted on the removal of a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, as well as the disinterment of the bodies of Forrest and his wife, from Forrest Park in Memphis.

As an attorney and a longtime lawmaker, I’m acutely aware of such jurisdictional issues. However, Tinker’s training as an attorney did not deter her from attempting to make this an issue. In addition to my personal disgust at the idea of voting to disinter bodies, I knew that the commission had no authority to do so. Tinker also fails to mention that both the Memphis City Council, which is majority African-American, and Memphis Mayor W.W. Herenton, who is African-American, had jurisdiction and never allowed the issue to come to a vote because they understood, as did I, that it would be racially divisive.

On Aug. 6, the day before the election, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) condemned the Tinker ads, as did former Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who once represented my district. Even EMILY’s List, which financially backed Tinker’s campaign, condemned the ads. That evening on MSNBC’s “Countdown,” Keith Olbermann named Tinker the “worst person in the world.” I think the time for trying to rewrite the truth of Tinker’s dirty campaign is over. The mud cannot be unslung.

Rep. Steve Cohen is a Democrat from Tennessee.