Obama asks voters in majority-black Tenn. district to reelect white congressman

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; 7:31 PM

President Obama waded Tuesday into a Democratic primary that has been rife with racial politics when he endorsed Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), the only white U.S. House member to represent a majority-black district.

Cohen's Memphis district is 60 percent black, and he has often had to answer the charge -- first leveled in 2006 as he ran to replace Harold Ford Jr. -- that an African American would do a better job representing the area.

His opponent in next month's Democratic primary, former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, even refers to the lack of racial diversity in Tennessee's congressional delegation on his campaign Web site. A page titled "This Picture Looks Better" includes a photo of Herenton alongside the state's all-white delegation.

Obama's endorsement, however, doesn't mention race.

"Congressman Cohen is a proven leader in the United States Congress and a strong voice for Tennessee," the president said in a statement. "Together, we passed historic health care reform, and together we're continuing the fight to renew our economy and bring jobs back to the American people. I am proud to stand with Steve and support his reelection to Congress."

Cohen, who was elected in 2006, said he was grateful for Obama's backing. (The president's approval ratings are down, but he still enjoys high support among black voters.)

"The issues that my opponent have raised are totally based on race, and I think the president's endorsement is a strong antidote," Cohen said in a phone interview.

At a news conference Tuesday in Memphis, Herenton said he admires Obama. But he argued that the president does not know the city's politics, is suffering in popularity polls and was probably pushed hard by the Cohen campaign for the endorsement, according to the Memphis Daily News.

"All we're trying to do, Mr. President, is get what you already got in Chicago," Herenton said, noting that Obama's home town of Chicago has African American members of Congress and Illinois has a black senator. "Mr. Obama's got to look long and hard to even see where Memphis is. . . . I'm sure Cohen was wearing them out."

Cohen supported Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, while Herenton backed Clinton before voting for Obama.

Cohen's campaign pointed out that he has also been backed by a dozen Congressional Black Caucus members, including CBC Chair Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)

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