Stephen Ira "Steve" Cohen
(born May 24, 1949) is a
of the United
States House of Representatives
representing Tennessee's ninth
. The district includes almost three-fourths of
Prior to his election to the House in November 2006, Cohen was a
Tennessee State Senator
years. He is Tennessee's first Jewish
congressman. Cohen is one of only two non-blacks representing
majority black districts in Congress.
Early life and education
born in Memphis,
Tennessee on May 24, 1949 to pediatrician Morris D.
Cohen and his wife Genevieve. 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.
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
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
California where Dr. Cohen had a fellowship in child
psychiatry at the University of Southern California.
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.
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
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
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
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, and 2004 Democratic National
Tennessee state legislature
Cohen was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly
1982 as a Senator representing District 30, which includes parts of
Memphis (including the downtown area). He held that position for 24
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
, which Tennessee voters approved via a
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
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
, 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
Cohen was the first Jewish
person to serve in
the Tennessee Senate
1996 House campaign
In 1996, Cohen ran for election to the United States House of
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,
, 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
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.
2006 House campaign
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
, 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. He carried many of
the district's predominantly black precincts by healthy margins. He
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. White was not seen as a serious factor, and by all accounts
would have faced nearly impossible odds even in a two-man race
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
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.
House of Representatives
Cohen is the first Jewish person 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
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
later decided against attempting to join after members of the CBC
(influenced by co-founder Bill Clay
indicated that they would not allow a non-black to join.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi
to serve on the House Judiciary
, which was Cohen's first choice for a committee
assignment, as well as the
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
During his first month in Congress, Cohen voted in favor of each of
the components of the Democratic Party's "100-Hour Plan
" in the House, including
increasing the federal minimum wage
requiring the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate
drug prices, and reducing interest rates for student borrowers.
Cohen also cosponsored House Concurrent Resolution
"[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
and the system of Jim Crow
that persisted for 100 years after the abolition of
slavery. Cohen noted that no president has officially apologized
for allowing slavery. The bill had picked up thirty-six cosponsors
by the end of the day. 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
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
, Cohen described him
as "overly optimistic," noting his "bizarre" statement that
sectarian war in Iraq is over.
Despite Cohen's strong performance in the black community, many of
the city's politically active blacks feel chagrin at being
represented by him. Besides sentiment that the 9th should be
represented by a black Democrat, his socially liberal views (see
below) also give 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.
2008 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
, 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
The campaign quickly turned ugly, with Tinker putting together a
raft of negative ads
attacked Cohen for voting to keep a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest
, founder of
the Ku Klux Klan
, at 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
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
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
Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton
announced that he will 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
(NJDC) criticized Herenton for these remarks, stating
that he comments were "unacceptable in a Democratic primary or
anywhere in our political discourse."
Issue positions and ideology
Cohen is by far the most liberal
member of the Tennessee congressional delegation, as well as one of
the most liberal members ever to represent the state in Congress.
He is known for his staunch support for environmental protection,
opposition to George W. Bush
over the War in Iraq
support for a woman's right to an abortion
To expand funds available for research and development of
alternative energy sources, Cohen supports the imposition of 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
of church and state
, medicinal use of
, gun rights
and capital punishment
He is a member of the Congressional Progressive
According to the Washington Post, of the 1,843 votes Cohen cast
during the 110th congress (as of October 10, 2008), Cohen voted
with Democrats 97.6% of the time (1,799 votes) and with the
Republicans 2.4% of the time (44 votes). He also missed 26 votes
(1.4%) of the 1869 votes conducted during the 110th Congress). In
all of the "key votes" made during the 110th Congress, Cohen voted
with the Democrats 100% of the time. Govtrack.us describes Cohen as
"a rank-and-file Democrat."
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.
Cohen was a friend of the late musician Warren Zevon
, who included him in the "Thanks"
listing in the booklet accompanying his final album, The Wind
. Cohen presented the eulogy
at Zevon's memorial service in Westwood, CA.
A room in Cohen's home contains a collection of more than 3,000
Cohen appeared briefly in the film The Firm
in a restaurant scene
with Tom Cruise
and Gene Hackman
. He also appeared as an extra in
another film adaptation of a John
Cohen appeared on the March 1, 2007 episode of The Colbert Report
in the show's
Better Know a District
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
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.