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August 05, 2008

Race Returns To TN

An increasingly bitter rematch between Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen and former Congressional aide Nikki Tinker devolved further over the weekend as charges and counter-charges of racism flew around Memphis. The two Democrats face off in a Thursday primary and Cohen, who is white, is having to work hard to keep his seat in a district that is about 60% African American.

The latest shot comes in a Tinker television ad, in which former County Commissioner Walter Bailey hits Cohen for voting against removing a statue of Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest from a city park while he served on a planning commission in 2005. Images in the advertisement, of a Klansman in front of a burning cross, might seem to suggest Cohen himself is somehow associated with the white supremacist organization, a charge that rallied Cohen backers and the Memphis Commercial Appeal to his defense.

"This kind of an ad done at the end of a campaign where they have not been critical once of any vote the Congressman has made in almost two years ... is a Hail Mary attempt here," Cohen manager Jerry Austin told The Scorecard. "It's typical of the kind of campaign [Tinker has] run. It's embarrassing."

Austin said Cohen voted against the measure because it didn't belong in front of the planning commission, and that neither the city's African American mayor nor the city council ever took up an effort to rename the park and remove the statue. A Tinker spokesperson did not return a call seeking comment.

Tinker has backing from a number of members of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as from EMILY's List, a group that endorses pro-choice Democratic women. Cohen has gotten some help from Washington, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who allowed a vote on a Cohen-backed measure apologizing for slavery last week. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, ostensibly an incumbent retention program, has refused to get involved on Cohen's behalf.