Issue of Race Complicates Tenn. U.S. House Battle

Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen faces a tough primary battle Thursday in his majority-black district based in Memphis.

The freshman congressman is up for re-election in the 9th Congressional District. The Democrat is the district's first white congressman in more than 30 years, and he has won top ratings for his voting record from African-American groups. But this year, new factors have Memphians re-evaluating the issues of race and representation.

Late last fall, for instance, Cohen had a falling out with some Memphis preachers, who said they did not think a white congressman should be representing a majority black district.

More recently, Cohen's rivals have dismissed some of his legislative efforts as mere pandering to black voters. They cited his failed attempt to join the Congressional Black Caucus and his successful push last week to get the U.S. House to apologize to black Americans for slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

On the other hand, the pro-choice, anti-war liberal Cohen still has a top rating from the NAACP. He is also eager to invoke the language of African-American leaders, past and present.

"People should be judged on the content of their character and their work ethic and their voting record and the issues, and not on the color of their skin," Cohen said. "That's what Dr. King talked about, and that is what Obama has shown that the American public has done. And Memphis shouldn't be behind, and Memphis isn't going to be behind."

Cohen faces two African-American challengers — Nikki Tinker, a well-financed corporate lawyer, and State Rep. Joe Towns — in the Aug. 7 Democratic primary.

Whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee is all but guaranteed to win the House seat. No Republican challenger has filed for the November election.

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