Stephen Ira Cohen (born May 24, 1949) is the U.S. Representative for Tennessee's 9th congressional district, serving since 2007. He is a member of the Democratic Party. Tennessee's 9th district includes almost three-fourths of Memphis. Cohen is Tennessee's first Jewish congressman.
Early life, education, and law career
Cohen was born in Memphis, Tennessee on May 24, 1949 to pediatrician Morris D. Cohen and his wife Genevieve.
He has two older brothers, Michael Corey and Martin D. Cohen. He is a fourth-generation Memphian, and is the grandson of a Jewish newsstand owner who immigrated from Lithuania. Cohen contracted polio when he was five, and the disease caused him to shift his attention from sports to politics at an early age. When Cohen was eleven, John F. Kennedy made a campaign stop in Memphis, and Cohen took a picture of Kennedy sitting on a convertible. Cohen describes Kennedy as his political hero; the picture still hangs in his office. In 1961, Cohen’s family moved to Coral Gables, Florida where his father received a fellowship in psychiatry at the University of Miami. From 1964 to 1966, the Cohen family resided in Pasadena, California where Dr. Cohen had a fellowship in child psychiatry at the University of Southern California. Cohen, who attended Polytechnic School, returned to Florida in 1966 to graduate from Coral Gables High School before returning to Memphis where his father established his private psychiatry practice.
Cohen graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1971 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1973, he graduated from the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law of Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) with a Juris Doctor.
Early political career
While serving for three years as Legal Advisor for the Memphis Police Department, Cohen rose to political prominence when he was elected to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1977 at the age of 27. The Convention elected him its vice president. Cohen was then elected to serve as a commissioner on the Shelby County Commission, an office he held from 1978 to 1980.
During his time at the Commission, Cohen was instrumental in the creation of The Med, a community-funded regional hospital. In 1980, Cohen served as an interim Shelby County General Sessions Court judge. He has also served as a delegate to the 1980, 1992, 2004, and 2008 Democratic National Conventions.
Cohen was elected to the Tennessee Senate in 1982, representing District 30, which includes parts of Memphis. He held that position for 24 years.
For 18 years, Cohen strove to repeal the ban on lotteries in the Tennessee State Constitution. His efforts were successful in 2002, and a state lottery program designed to provide college scholarships for Tennessee students was adopted the following year.
The lottery program is regarded as the most well-known accomplishment of Cohen's Senate career. Cohen also sponsored legislation relating to expansion of community access to healthcare, the protection of animal rights, the reinstatement of voting rights, graduated driver licenses, and funding for the arts during his career.
In March 2005, Cohen was one of three Tennessee Senators to vote against the Tennessee Marriage Protection Amendment, which Tennessee voters approved via a referendum in November 2006. During the course of the debate on the amendment, Cohen offered several amendments to the amendment, all of which failed, including the proposed addition of an "adultery clause," which said "Adultery is deemed to be a threat to the institution of marriage and contrary to public policy in Tennessee."
Cohen was widely regarded as one of the Senate's toughest and most articulate debaters, as he has an unusually straightforward and direct style when compared to other Southern politicians. One Tennessee writer described him as "very outspoken, very persistent, and a lot more cerebral than most of his colleagues."
When elected in 1982, Cohen was the first Jewish member to serve in the Tennessee Senate since 1958.
U.S. House of Representatives
In 1996, Cohen ran for election to the United States House of Representatives seat for the 9th District, which came open when 22-year incumbent and fellow Democrat Harold Ford, Sr. announced his retirement. The then 26-year-old Harold Ford, Jr., the incumbent's son, was his opponent in the Democratic primary. Reflecting on the race, Cohen said, "I'd spent fourteen years in the [state] Senate, had the experience, and didn't like the idea of [the seat] being handed down like an heirloom."
Cohen lost the primary to Ford by 25 points. Noting that Ford, an African-American, did much better than Cohen in majority black precincts despite Ford's inexperience, Cohen said, "It is impossible for a person who is not African American to get a large vote in the African American community . . . against a substantial candidate. The fact is, I am white, and it doesn't seem to matter what you do." Later, Cohen admitted that his statement was "impolitic" but also noted that "race is still an important factor in voting."
Cohen was able to return to the State Senate after the election. Tennessee state senators serve staggered four-year terms, and Cohen did not have to run for reelection to the Senate until 1998.
In early April 2006, Cohen announced that he was again running for the 9th District seat; Ford, Jr. was not running for reelection. Cohen was the first candidate in the race with significant name recognition outside the Memphis area but had fourteen opponents in the primary. The Commercial Appeal, Memphis' daily newspaper, endorsed Cohen in the race. The crowded nature of the primary was largely due to the district's demographics. The 9th is a heavily Democratic, black-majority district, and it was considered very likely that whoever won the Democratic primary would be the district's next congressman.
Cohen won the August 3 primary by a decisive 4,000-vote margin despite being outspent 2 to 1 by the runner-up in the primary. In fact, six Democrats raised more money than he did. He carried many of the district's predominantly black precincts by healthy margins. He faced Republican Mark White and independent Jake Ford (the younger brother of Harold Ford, Jr.) in the general election in November.
Though the Ninth District is heavily Democratic, Jake Ford was seen as a serious contender for the race because of his significant name recognition among Memphis' black voters. Jake Ford had skipped the Democratic primary because he felt it was too crowded, but stated he would caucus with the Democrats if elected. The Ford family has been a significant force in Memphis' black community since the days of E.H. Crump. Indeed, it seemed that the real race was between Cohen and Jake Ford, with White not seen as a serious factor.
Cohen was endorsed by the mayor of Memphis, W. W. Herenton, and the mayor of Shelby County, A.C. Wharton, both of whom are black and members of the Democratic Party. He was also endorsed by many local Democratic activists who had long felt Harold Ford, Jr. was too moderate.
However, many of the city's politically influential black pastors refused to support Cohen, and the area Black Ministers Association overwhelmingly voted to endorse Jake Ford. The Ford family itself was split. While Harold Ford, Jr. himself remained neutral (despite rumors of collusion between the two brothers' campaigns), their cousin Joe Ford, Jr., an entertainment lawyer, strongly endorsed Cohen after finishing third in the primary. However, Harold Ford, Sr. strongly supported his younger son.
On October 8, 2006, Cohen, Ford, and White participated in a televised debate in Memphis. Among other topics, issues discussed included Iraq, medical marijuana, education, and the Tennessee Marriage Protection Amendment. Ford attacked Cohen's record in the State Senate, including his opposition to the Marriage Protection Amendment, support for medical marijuana, and his voting attendance record. Cohen responded by standing by his public record, pointing out Ford's lack of experience in public office, and indicating that Ford had been to jail and had dropped out of high school.
Cohen won the election by a decisive margin, winning 60% of the vote to Ford's 22% and White's 18%.Sixty percent of the votes received by Cohen were from African-American voters.
Despite Cohen's strong performance in the black community, many of the city's politically active blacks felt chagrined at being represented by him. Despite some sentiment that the 9th should be represented by a black Democrat, his socially liberal views (see below) also gave them pause. For example, Cohen's support for a hate-crimes bill drew particularly strong opposition from most of the city's black ministers because it included a sexual orientation provision. Cohen contends that every member of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for the bill, and Harold Ford, Jr. had voted for it in the previous Congress. Still, many of the city's black ministers tried to rally behind a consensus black candidate to challenge Cohen in the Democratic primary.
In the 2008 Democratic Primary in Tennessee's ninth congressional district, Cohen faced four challengers in the August 7 Democratic primary. His major opponent was Nikki Tinker, a lawyer who had finished second to Cohen in the 2006 primary and had formerly been an aide to Harold Ford, Jr. Tinker received the endorsement of the city's Black Ministerial Association.
The campaign quickly turned ugly, with Tinker putting together a raft of negative ads. One attacked Cohen for voting against a proposal that would have removed a statue and the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate lieutenant-general who was involved in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, from the Medical Center park. The ad falsely implied that Cohen had ties to the Klan by juxtaposing Cohen with a white-clad Klansman. Another ad accused Cohen of "praying in our churches" while voting against school prayer during his tenure in the State Senate. Tinker's campaign later removed the ads from its YouTube account amid criticism from a number of sources.
On the day the Primary was held, Barack Obama denounced Tinker's ads, saying they "have no place in our politics, and will do nothing to help the good people of Tennessee." Harold Ford, Jr. also denounced the ads.
The primary had been marred by racial tensions for months prior to the August vote. In February 2008, Rev. George Brooks, a Tinker supporter, distributed literature in the district which stated that "Cohen and the Jews HATE Jesus" and urged the defeat of an "opponent of Christ and Christianity." Another minister, Rev. Robert Poindexter of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, said that he was supporting Tinker because Cohen "(is) not black, and he can't represent me, that's just the bottom line."
Ultimately, Cohen won the primary in a rout, taking 79 percent of the vote to Tinker's 19 percent. In his victory speech, Cohen said his victory proved "Memphis has come a long, long way" from its racially divisive past. Cohen's primary win virtually assured him of a second term; no Republican even filed, and any Republican challenger would have faced nearly impossible odds in any case. He was reelected with 87.9 percent of the vote against three independent challengers, one of whom was Jake Ford (who won 4.8 percent of the vote).
Cohen endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary on February 4, 2008, the day before the Super Tuesday, 2008 primaries. On September 10, 2008 while speaking on the floor of the House, Cohen compared Obama's work as a community organizer to Jesus' work.
Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton announced that he would challenge Cohen in the 2010 Democratic primary for the seat. In a guest column in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Herenton wrote that while he hoped the campaign would focus on issues rather than race or religion, that "it remains a fact that the 9th Congressional District provides the only real opportunity to elect a qualified African-American to the all-white 11-member delegation representing Tennessee in Washington." Herenton also denied having supported Cohen in his 2006 bid against Jake Ford, writing "I did not support Steve Cohen the individual for the 9th Congressional District. I supported an idea that was bigger than him as an individual. I supported the principle of fairness." During the 2006 campaign, Herenton endorsed Cohen, saying "Steve Cohen is the best-qualified candidate for this leadership role". While Cohen's commanding win in the 2008 primary suggested that he has won strong support among the district's African-American community, Herenton is easily his highest-profile opponent to date.
In September 2009, Herenton drew controversy when he stated in a radio interview that Cohen "really does not think very much of African-Americans" and that "[Cohen]’s played the black community well.” In addition, Herenton's campaign manager Sidney Chism told the New York Times that the Memphis-area congressional seat Cohen holds "was set aside for people who look like me. It wasn't set aside for a Jew or a Christian. It was set aside so that blacks could have representation." The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) criticized Herenton for these remarks, stating that he comments were "unacceptable in a Democratic primary or anywhere in our political discourse."
In the unofficial election results, Steve Cohen won 79% of the vote to Herenton's 21%. The vote marked the first time Herenton, 70, elected to a record five terms as mayor, lost a race for public office.
Cohen is the first Jew to represent Tennessee in Congress, as well as the first white Democrat to represent a significant portion of Memphis since freshman George Grider was defeated by Republican Dan Kuykendall in 1966, and the first Jew to represent a majority black district, as well as one of the few white congressmen that has represented a black-majority district. Before being elected, Cohen told reporters that he would seek to become the first white member of the Congressional Black Caucus, but later decided against joining after members of the CBC (influenced by co-founder Bill Clay) indicated that they would not allow a non-black to join.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi assigned Cohen to serve on the House Judiciary Committee, which was Cohen's first choice for a committee assignment, as well as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
- Political positions
Cohen is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He supports environmental conservation,.
He opposed Republican policy regarding the War in Iraq,
Cohen supports legal abortion.
To expand funds available for research and development of alternative energy sources, Cohen supports an excess profits tax on oil companies. Cohen has said that he believes that adequate health care is a "fundamental right" of all citizens. Cohen supports gender equality, progressive taxation, medicinal use of marijuana, decriminalization of Marijuana, gun rights and capital punishment. Cohen was the headline speaker at the Marijuana Policy Project's January 2010 annual gala in Washington.
During his first month in Congress, Cohen supported the "100-Hour Plan" in the House, which included raising the federal minimum wage, requiring the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate lower Medicare prescription drug prices, and reducing interest rates for student borrowers. Cohen also cosponsored House Concurrent Resolution 23, which "[expresses] the sense of Congress that the President should not order an escalation in the total number of members of the United States Armed Forces serving in Iraq."
On February 27, 2007, Cohen introduced a resolution in the House that apologizes for African-American slavery and the system of Jim Crow laws that persisted for 100 years after the abolition of slavery. Cohen noted that no president has officially apologized for allowing slavery. The bill had36 cosponsors. The resolution passed on July 29, 2008, marking the first time a branch of the federal government had officially apologized for the institution of slavery and its aftermath.
Cohen made a trip to Iraq from October 4, 2007 to October 7, 2007 as part of a congressional fact-finding delegation. Cohen noted that his impression was that the country was "not in very good shape" and that its economy has been "ravaged." Cohen met with soldiers who complained that long deployments are causing divorces. When Cohen raised this concern with General David Petraeus, Petraeus told Cohen that the claims were being exaggerated. After meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Cohen described him as "overly optimistic," noting his "bizarre" statement that sectarian war in Iraq is over.
Steve Cohen has sponsored 16 bills since Jan 4, 2007, of which 13 haven't made it out of committee and 2 were successfully enacted. Cohen has co-sponsored 762 bills during the same time period.
- Armenian issues
Although his family has no knowledge of any Turkish heritage, Cohen's mother's birth certificate states his maternal grandfather was born in Turkey when it was part of the Ottoman Empire; it is probable that he is a descendant of the Sephardic Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition and traveled to the Ottoman Empire and present day Turkey. He is a member of the Congressional Caucus on US Turkish Relations and Turkish Americans. He has consistently opposed Congressional recognition of the Armenian Genocide on pragmatic grounds, believing that recognizing it officially in Congress would damage relations with Turkey.
On August 6, 2008, one day before the August 7, 2008 Democratic Congressional Primary, a confrontation between California-based documentary filmmaker Peter Musurlian and Cohen erupted. During a press conference at Cohen's home, Musurlian was asked to leave by Cohen's staff and Cohen himself. Cohen then put both hands on Musurlian's arms and forced him out of the home after the journalist asked the congressman about the Armenian Genocide. The journalist subsequently accused Cohen of assault.
- 2011 Nazi controversy
In a speech on the House floor on January 18, 2011, Cohen said of the Republican effort to repeal the Obama administration's health care reform law:
They say it's a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels. You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie and eventually, people believe it. Like blood libel. That's the same kind of thing. The Germans said enough about the Jews and the people believed it and you had the Holocaust. You tell a lie over and over again. And we've heard on this floor, government takeover of health care.
According to Cohen's hometown paper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, he was "accused of upsetting the newfound atmosphere of civility in the House" following the assassination attempt on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Republicans, as well as many in the media and in the Jewish community, expressed outrage and demanded that Democrats condemn Cohen's comment. Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wrote that "someone needs to carpet Cohen, pronto, for his rhetoric." His remarks were also condemned by the National Jewish Democratic Council, which issued a statement saying that "invoking the Holocaust to make a political point is never acceptable—on either side of the aisle. Cohen’s comments and similar comments made by others are not helpful as our leaders and citizens conduct a joint effort to advance civility in our political discourse. We implore Cohen and all our leaders to choose their words carefully as we move forward."
In response to the controversy, Cohen said "I said Goebbels lied about the Jews, and that led to the Holocaust. Not in any way whatsoever was I comparing Republicans to Nazis. I was saying lies are wrong."
Cohen later expressed regret for his remarks:
I would certainly never do anything to diminish the horror of the Nazi Holocaust as I revere and respect the history of my people. I sponsored legislation which created one of the first state Holocaust Commissions in America and actively served as a Commission member for over 20 years. I regret that anyone in the Jewish Community, my Republican colleagues or anyone else was offended by the portrayal of my comments. My comments were not directed toward any group or people but at the false message and, specifically, the method by which is has been delivered.
- Committee on the Judiciary
- Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties
- Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law (Ranking Member)
- Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security
- Task Force on Judicial Impeachment
- Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
- Subcommittee on Aviation
- Subcommittee on Highways and Transit
- Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment
- Congressional Caucus on Turkey and Turkish Americans
- Congressional Progressive Caucus
- International Conservation Caucus
- Congressional Arts Caucus