By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; A19
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) arrived on Capitol Hill three years ago ready to join the Congressional Black Caucus. His logic was simple: More than 60 percent of the people in his Memphis-based congressional district are black.
So was the caucus's logic in its reply: The organization is reserved for black members of Congress, and Cohen is white.
The caucus still has not opened its weekly meetings to Cohen, but he has found a different kind of welcome from the group: their endorsements.
For the third straight election, Cohen is facing an African American opponent in the Democratic primary, and the race once again features a debate on whether the district should be represented by a black person, as it was from 1975 to 2007, first by Harold Ford Sr. and then by his son Harold Jr.
But unlike in 2008, when some caucus members backed one of Cohen's black opponents, several African American members of Congress are supporting their colleague and none has yet endorsed his challenger, former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton.
"He's a wonderful member, he's a solid and good Democratic vote," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights hero, who is for Cohen. "That district had a black representative, they had a father and later a son. And the voting record of Steve Cohen is just as good as any African American member."
The Aug. 5 primary will almost certainly determine who wins the heavily Democratic district, and Herenton is not being subtle in making the race about race. One of his campaign slogans is "Just One" -- highlighting his argument that Tennessee should have at least a single black member of Congress.
"The Tennessee congressional delegation consists of 11 members. None are African American," said Herenton. "The major issue is one of representation, proportional representation. The other aspect of my candidacy is, my qualifications far exceed those of the incumbent's."
Cohen casts the endorsements from members of the black caucus as a sign of racial progress. In 1996, he bitterly complained after losing to Ford Jr. in the race to replace Ford Sr. in the House, and he suggested that he would always struggle to win in this district.
"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 longtime state legislator told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "The fact is I am white, and it doesn't seem to matter what you do.''
Cohen has said that he regrets that remark. And 10 years later, as Ford Jr. opted for a Senate run, he again ran for the House. Cohen won the primary, aided by several black candidates dividing the African American vote. He easily defeated another black opponent in 2008.
The incumbent is the heavy favorite in the primary, holding a fundraising advantage over Herenton and backing from not only members of the black caucus but also from President Obama, who endorsed him last week. Avoiding the issue of race, Obama praised Cohen's vote for the health-care legislation.
"The whole idea of people voting by race, with Barack Obama's election, is going by the wayside," Cohen said in an interview. "To some extent, this race will be a litmus test about where we are."
The Cohen saga illustrates the still-complicated dynamics of race in politics.
As Cohen himself noted, Democratic Rep. Artur Davis, a caucus member, lost a gubernatorial primary in Alabama last month as black voters defected, in part because of his opposition to the health-care bill that Obama and most Democrats pushed into law.
At the same time, Latino and black members of Congress see value in remaining organized into formal caucuses. And for now, Cohen remains outside of the latter group.
The caucus's chairwoman, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), heaped praise on Cohen, but would not comment on the idea of his joining the group.
Lewis offered: "The CBC is made up of black members. Maybe he can become an honorary member."
Cohen abandoned his push to join almost as soon as he arrived in Congress back in 2007, once members privately told him they did not support the move. But he says he would still like to be an official member so he could attend its meetings and be involved in its work.
"If they invite me, I will join, but I'm not going to press, although it would help me to have some formal agreement" with the caucus, said Cohen. "We share a similar constituency."
He added: "It was something I would have been proud to have as an honor. I like to break barriers."