Representative-elect Steve Cohen of Memphis found himself happily ensconced in Washington, D.C. last week after handily winning his race against political scion (and opportunistic independent) Jake Ford.
Campaign Confidential caught up with Cohen by phone late Friday afternoon, as he was riding in a cab and exhibiting a newbie’s typical befuddlement over fares and zones. But no matter: On the bigger question, of how Cohen would fit in with his African-American colleagues, he seemed at ease.
It wasn’t that the Congressional Black Caucus had reconsidered its earlier decision not to admit white lawmakers into the coalition. (Cohen is the first white congressman to represent his heavily black Memphis district since the mid-1960s; he is also Tennessee’s first Jewish representative.)
It was that after a rough-and-tumble contest which featured much carping on Cohen’s race and religion, he was finally not on the defensive about his personal background.
“I’m going to form the southern Jewish Democratic caucus, and I’m going to be president,” Cohen joked.
He said that several prominent African-Americans lawmakers – including Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia – had met with him to offer their congratulations and support.
“They’ve all been wonderful,” Cohen said. “They’ve all said, ‘Listen, you don’t need to join the caucus, the caucus is pretty much going to stay black as it has been, but you don’t need to join.”
“Charlie Rangel said, ‘I’m going to look out for you, and don’t worry, we’re happy to have you here, and you’re going to be a great member.’”
Cohen said that he had backed Rep. John Murtha in his failed bid for majority leader.
“He’s heroic for standing out on Iraq,” Cohen explained. Also “I met him when I came up here in March, and he didn’t know who I was, I just was kind of lost and I said, ‘How do I get to the Capitol and this guy said, ‘Come on with me,’ and we walked down the hall … it wasn’t a big deal, but he was just a nice fellah.
“He had this pretty avuncular quality about him and that was pretty much it, but of course speaker Pelosi was for him, too, and that didn’t hurt because I’m on her team.”