Who drives around Washington in a black 1986 Cadillac?
If you guessed Congressman Steven Cohen of Tennessee, you would be correct. A Democrat, Cohen has represented a Memphis-area district for nine years after serving 24 years in the Tennessee Senate.
Lawyer Alan Lubel hosted Cohen, his Vanderbilt ZBT fraternity brother, in his Sandy Springs home Monday, Jan. 4. Call it a meet-and-greet quasi-fundraiser, but Cohen was affable, approachable, quick-witted and informative.
“What makes Cohen unique is that he is the only non-African-American congressman to represent a predominantly black constituency,” Lubel said. A fourth-generation Memphian, Cohen has dedicated his life to local and national politics as a progressive Democrat.
“How do you define that?” I asked. Cohen said, “My emphasis is on civil rights, women’s issues and not being stuck in the past.”
As a congressman, Cohen will be a superdelegate to this year’s Democratic National Convention, where he plans to support Hillary Clinton.
“One of my best friends was Julian Bond. Since I am one of the few real drivers (contrasted to those who live in their office and shower at the gym) in D.C., I used to chauffeur him around and laugh about us being the opposite of ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ ” Cohen said. He said he hopes that Bond, who died in August, will receive the Medal of Freedom posthumously.
Knowing his audience, Cohen brought out his Yiddish expressions for the night, but one can imagine the challenges he faces at home when he is challenged by African-American candidates who think one of their own should represent the 9th Congressional District. Cohen, who in 2010 easily defeated Memphis’ first black mayor, Willie Herenton, in the Democratic primary, joked: “Guess who’s coming to Congress? Me.”
Cohen’s successes as a state lawmaker included the establishment of the lottery in Tennessee to raise billions for education, the creation of a Holocaust commission, and an innovative animal welfare law that allows damages (capped at $5,000) for the pain and suffering of a pet cat or dog.
Lubel included some conservative Republicans among the invited guests. No one challenged Cohen’s comments, but I saw some flinches and bitten tongues.
On Israel, Cohen said: “Of course I am a friend of Israel; what Jew isn’t? I have visited Black Muslim mosques, and most African-Americans relate well to Palestinians as being enslaved. I believe in a two-state solution. Arabs do support black politicians; we know that. I play both ends and support AIPAC and J Street.”
It should be noted that although Cohen sent a letter to President Barack Obama to request certain safeguards in the Iran nuclear deal, he eventually supported the agreement.
“There are Jewish issues beyond Israel,” he said. “What about tolerance for human rights? Gay rights? Desire for justice and knowledge? Striving for independence?”
Dr. Marshall Abes asked about Tennessee water as a resource for Georgia downstream. Cohen said: “Yes, water, like plastics in the ‘Graduate’ movie, is the hot topic. I’ll look into it, but I drink it straight.”
Paul Heller inquired about gun control. Cohen said: “It’s probably impossible to stop all the meshuganas, but we have to try. I myself have a gun and license to carry. America seems to be behind Europe on this phenomenon.”
Cohen said he had polio as a child and learned how to overcome obstacles. He now regrets not marrying and having the blessing of a family. “I’ll leave my button collection to Lubel.”
In closing Cohen said: “I am a friend of Elie Wiesel and, like him, do not believe that we can accept despair as an answer. I have hope for Middle East peace and a collegial Congress.” (To that end, he complimented new House Speaker Paul Ryan.)
“What does American have?” Cohen said. “Legal drugs, a defense industry and intellectual property. That is our new reality.”