Rep. Steve Cohen’s overwhelming 79-19 victory in Tennessee’s ninth congressional district Democratic primary has got to warm the cockles of even the most cynical journalistic heart. Nikki Tinker’s race- and Jew-baiting ads, designed to encourage voters in the majority-black district to choose one of their own, backfired with a vengeance, as Americans’ rosiest accounts of ourselves say they should have.
It did seem that Cohen was headed for a big win regardless. A native Memphian who served many years in the state senate before being elected to Congress, he ran by all accounts an excellent campaign, and was well funded. Tinker was something of an outsider, born and raised in Alabama, and her ads were considered acts of desperation. Still, she had the support of black clergy in the district and money from EMILY’s List. You never know what’s going to happen.
So it’s hard to avoid thinking that any inclination black voters in the district may have felt to base their choice solely on the importance of being represented by an African American was undermined by this year’s spectacle of millions of white Democrats all over the country voting for the black guy. Lest anyone miss the point, there were the statements condemning the ads and the racial divisiveness they represented from both Barack Obama and the district’s former congressman and sometime TN senatorial candidate, Harold Ford, Jr. In his victory remarks, Cohen himself pushed the point forward: “Memphis, Tennessee has shown CNN and The New York Times and MSNBC and everyone else that we are united, we are moving forward and we are a bellwether for what is going to happen in America when Barack Obama is elected president.”
I remember spending a few days in Memphis just after the 1992 election reporting for the Atlanta Journal Constitution on a biracial grass roots organizing effort similar to the one Obama worked for in Chicago. While it had achieved some traction, there was no question that race relations remained a much tougher slog in Memphis than in Atlanta. The operative contrast was between the city that gave birth to Martin Luther King, Jr. and preserved his dream versus the city where he was assassinated and the dream seemed to gutter out. That’s why I like this comment, affixed last night to the Commercial Appeal‘s story on Cohen’s victory:
Congratulations Cohen and as a lifelong Memphian and 9th district resident everyone in Memphis made me proud tonight. This proves that Memphians will not be fooled again by the racial politics that was played by some of our pimp pastors and Tinker supporters and that sought to destroy Cohen’s character and mischaracterize his votes. This election clearly brought out the worst in the Tinker camp but residents and fellow citizens you brought out the best and showed what can happen when out city and district learn to work together and undestand each other. Cohen has been very responsive in his first term and deserved to be reelected the only compelling reason that was ever given to vote for Tinker was because she was black . A few people vote that way and are convinced skin is what matter not what a person will or have done. I hope as an African American that this is a new day in politics and King’s dream becomes a reality