Anti-Semitic Note Attacks Tenn. Lawmaker
Published: 2/14/08, 2:06 PM EDT
By WOODY BAIRD
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Steve Cohen, a white congressman representing a mostly black district, is no stranger to political attacks tinged with race. A new political flier circulating in the district is forcing him to confront anti-Semitism, too.
The flier, which showed up in mailboxes this week, aims to rally black Christians to oppose Cohen because he's Jewish. "Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen and the Jews hate Jesus," the flier reads in bold letters.
The origin of the flier was unclear, but Cohen said he worried it was a sign of more nastiness to come during the campaign. It urges voters to unite behind "one black Christian to represent Memphis in the United States Congress in 2008."
"It was very bizarre," said Cohen, a first-term Democrat.
Cohen is the first white congressman from Memphis in more than three decades. Nikki Tinker, a black lawyer expected to be Cohen's chief opponent for re-election in the Democratic primary in August, said she was incensed by the anti-Semitic attack.
"My faith teaches me to love, not hate," said Tinker, who is Christian.
The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement from Atlanta describing the flier as an attempt "to incite tension between the Memphis African-American and Jewish communities."
The flier, which was also sent by mail to the Memphis Jewish Federation, included a contact name, the Rev. George Brooks, and a phone number in Murfreesboro, a town near Nashville and some 200 miles outside Cohen's district.
A woman who would only identify herself as a friend of Brooks answered a call to the number and said he was out of town. Repeated subsequent calls went unanswered and messages were unreturned.
Cohen easily won the 2006 general election in the heavily Democratic district, but he took a crowded primary with just barely 30 percent of the vote. Four black candidates split almost 60 percent of the vote.
Cohen's most vocal opposition has come from critics arguing that the Memphis district, which is 60 percent black and 34 percent white, should have a black representative in Washington.
Cohen was challenged last year at a meeting of the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association as being unable to represent the 9th District because of his race.
"He's not black, and he can't represent me. That's the bottom line," one pastor told the local newspaper as the raucous meeting broke up.
The Rev. O.C. Collins, a member of the ministerial association, later invited Cohen to speak at his church as a way to apologize for the group's "impoliteness."
Collins said he wondered why a preacher from another part of Tennessee would care about the Memphis election or launch such a distasteful attack. But he said the anti-Semitic flier is unlikely to sway Memphis voters and the racial arguments will have limited success.
"It stinks. It really, really stinks," he said. "But I think the people Congressman Cohen represents are a whole lot smarter than some people are giving us credit for."
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