At the intersection of Union and Cooper, an 11-year-old boy stricken with polio waited eagerly for the convertible transporting the future 35th president of the United States to pass his way en route to the riverfront to deliver a campaign speech. Transfixed by the thrill of seeing Sen. John F. Kennedy, Steve Cohen aimed his camera, framed the senator, and fired the shutter that day in September of 1960.
Today, the vintage black and white photograph of a beaming Kennedy sitting atop the convertible with then-Memphis mayor Henry Loeb and then-Senator Albert Gore Sr. hangs conspicuously among Cohen's extensive collection of photographs, posters, artwork, hundreds of campaign buttons, and other political paraphernalia in his Spanish Tudor-style home on the periphery of Overton Park.
The paraphernalia are decades-long records of events and personalities that inspired and shaped Cohen. His brush with Kennedy subsequently would seal his fate as a public servant in local, state and national politics.
"My father took me with him to vote in 1960. He let me pull the level for John Kennedy," said Cohen, who registered to vote at 21 on the same day he ran for public office. He would become a delegate and vice-president of the Tennessee Constitutional Convention in 1977, serve two years on the Shelby County Commission, and 24 years in the Tennessee State Senate.
In 2006, Cohen beat 14 opponents in the Democratic Primary and ushered in a new era as the first Jewish person in Tennessee's history to win election to the U.S. House of Representatives from the state's majority African-American Ninth Congressional District.
The Democratic Primary is Aug. 7th, and Cohen is seeking a 5th term. Democratic challengers attorney Ricky E. Wilkins and activist Isaac Richmond are vying for the seat. Republican Charlotte Bergmann is making another run, and Paul Cook is tossing his hat in the ring as an independent.
Early voting is July 18 to Aug. 2.
After Cohen made his mark as a freshman congressman, casting votes that were endeared by the NAACP and other organizations, he and his supporters in the African-American community would find common ground on most issues.
"The NAACP has given me an 'A' every single year. Harold Ford Jr. got a 'C,'" said Cohen, noting that some powerful African Americans around the country "express sadness that I have an opponent." He pointed out Kansas City Cong. Emanuel Cleaver II, former AFSCME secretary-treasurer William "Bill" Lucy, former Georgia state senator and past NAACP chairman Julian Bond, and Georgia Cong. John Lewis.
Cohen has had his share of opposition – but what politician hasn't? However, those who know him have discovered that his political astuteness and work ethic tend to work to his advantage. In fact, he has been victorious in each congressional race since his maiden launch in 2006. He beat Nikki Tinker in 2008, former Memphis mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton in 2010, and Tomeka Hart in 2012.
Wilkins is running a fierce campaign in an attempt to unseat Cohen. Undaunted by the move, the congressman, a fierce campaigner himself, said unequivocally, "I run every race the same way. I leave no stone unturned. I take every election seriously. And I run on my record.
"There's not a day – when I'm home – that I don't meet with my constituents and respond to the issues," said Cohen, declaring himself a hands-on congressman – such as writing, addressing and sealing thank you notes and proofing all documents.
"This is part of who I am," he said. "I've done this all my life. I haven't changed. I'm a Type A personality. I've been this way since I was a child. I've had a lot to overcome. And polio survivors are known to be Type A personalities."
In a feature story in March, Wilkins pointed out that he's running a campaign based on his qualifications and the issues. He also said he's the right person to represent the district, which is 60 percent African American and 33.5 percent white.
Is this a subtle argument on Wilkins' part that an African American should represent the district? He wouldn't entertain the notion, but noted that he understands the constituents and their needs, having been raised by a single mother struggling in South Memphis.
Cohen counters, saying, "Nobody brought up that you have to be African American, poor, or raised by a single mother when Harold Ford Jr. was in Congress. Nobody questioned his ability to represent the district coming from a wealthy and powerful family.
"I don't think people are buying that. It wasn't a condition necessary for Harold Ford Jr. to go to Congress. The public wants somebody who works hard, who's going to be there for the city, and deliver. The fact that I'm white is not an issue."
Delivering for Memphis...
Although Wilkins has laid out his platform and what he intends to do if he's elected to Congress, Cohen said quite frankly, "These are things I've already done."
Pro-choice. "He's never done anything or gotten any recognition for his efforts," the congressman said. "I've been pro-choice all my life."
The Affordable Care Act. "Well, I've voted for it, campaigned for it. I've spoken for it, and I've signed people up. I've never seen him as part of the debate."
Working with President Obama in Washington. "He's not going to. President Obama wants to work with me. We have a good relationship and that's for the good and benefit of Memphis."
Cohen touted his relationship with the president at a news conference at his home in April, where he announced that Obama had endorsed his re-election bid for the third consecutive time. He read the endorsement to the media.
"Congressman Steve Cohen has been a leader on justice and civil rights issues and has worked tirelessly on behalf of his constituents. His focus on bringing good jobs, affordable health care, and world class education to Tennessee is why I am proud to once again support his re-election."
Cohen said Wilkins talks about the district's problems, what his office hasn't done to fix them, but has never written his office – "not once."
"Talk is cheap," he said. "I know politics. I've been in it all my life."
The district is contained entirely in Shelby County and includes the city of Memphis and portions of Collierville and Germantown. When it comes to governance, Cohen said there's a public sector and there's a private sector.
"Some people say the city is in bad shape economically. So they ask what have I done. Well, I've done a lot," he said, explaining the difference between the congressman's job and the mayor's job. "The congressman is not responsible for the overall health of the city. That's the mayor's job."
On the federal level, however, Cohen pointed to a number of projects that he's supported with federal dollars. "We got major funding for the MED – now Regional One Health – which was in the Affordable Care Act," he said.
"I worked to get funding for the Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks Job Corps Center, brought jobs to Memphis with the American Steamship project, and got federal funds for the City of Memphis' Second Chance program."
He pointed to another project currently on his desk, a Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant that he's trying to secure that would transform the area around Vance Avenue into a mixed-income housing community.
In 2012, the congressman announced that Memphis would receive a Tiger IV Discretionary Grant to establish a 12-mile regional multimodal corridor between Main Street in Memphis and Main Street in West Memphis, Ark., via the historic Harahan Bridge over the Mississippi River.
He also said he's working with Mayor A C Wharton Jr. to get the federal government to grant a Promise Zone status to Memphis in an effort to eliminate poverty. The first criterion, he said, is to secure a Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant.
"It would be a major accomplishment for Memphis," Cohen said.
On justice, racial disparities, and crime issues, Cohen said he has the president's ear particularly on issues that would benefit or affect African Americans, such as commutation of sentences involving crack cocaine.
He recommended to the president and the Senate confirmed the following judicial nominees: Judge Bernice Donald for United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, Judge John Fowlkes for District Court Judge for the Western District of Tennessee, Ed Stanton III as U.S. Attorney for Tennessee's Western District, and recently Sheryl Lipman for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.
As a ranking member of Congress now, Cohen said he has the influence and the support of the Obama administration to deliver for Memphis.
About U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen...
Cohen is a fourth-generation Memphian. After graduating from Coral Gables High School in Florida, he returned home to Memphis and graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville in 1971 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, and from the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law of the former Memphis State University in 1973 with a Juris Doctor.
After establishing a legal practice in 1978, Cohen went on to devote his life to public service. He is an avid supporter of the arts and a longtime sports fan, particularly the Memphis Grizzlies. His community involvement includes serving on various boards and commissions. He also is a lifetime member of the NAACP.
Cohen has been honored numerous times throughout his career – for policymaking and legislative leadership, his voting record, and for advocating on behalf of various groups and issues.