Cohen’s role as vocal Trump critic figures prominently in bid for eighth term

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 30, 2020 6:49 PM CT | Published: July 30, 2020 4:00 AM CT
<strong>Congressman Steve Cohen&rsquo;s criticism of President Donald Trump is regularly praised by constituents at his frequent town hall meetings, such as this one on Jan. 17, where he mainly focused on impeachment-related issues.</strong> (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian file)

Congressman Steve Cohen’s criticism of President Donald Trump is regularly praised by constituents at his frequent town hall meetings, such as this one on Jan. 17, where he mainly focused on impeachment-related issues. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian file)

A month after calling for the impeachment of U.S. Attorney General William Barr, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen confronted Barr Tuesday, July 28, as Barr testified before the House Judiciary Committee.

Cohen’s seat on the committee dais is front row and center of whomever is testifying. From that perspective, as well as Cohen’s past statements about Barr, it was a showdown.

It was also a sequel to his taunting of Barr more than a year earlier when Barr refused to testify before the committee.

To publicize the no-show in May 2019, Cohen put a ceramic chicken on his desk and then ate from a bucket of KFC chicken to make clear how he felt about Barr. It was a rare use of visual aids by the Memphis Democrat in a chamber where some other members of Congress never speak without a chart or some other prop.

Cohen calls Barr ‘chicken’ as Republicans back attorney general

For Corey Strong, who is challenging Cohen in the Aug. 6 Democratic primary, the bucket of fried chicken is a symbol of his challenge of the seven-term incumbent.

The video of Cohen chowing down on the chicken is featured prominently in a Strong Facebook ad from June that is still in circulation.

The voice-over by Strong, a former Shelby County Democratic Party chairman, says: “At a time when America is finally realizing that Black lives matter, what the country sees as Memphis – my Memphis – is our representative eating fried chicken. These are serious times and they require a serious voice.”

The video shows boarded-up and vacant buildings and streetscapes in the city.

“After 14 years of sending Congressman Cohen and our hard-earned taxes to Washington, it has become clear something isn’t working and we cannot ignore it any longer,” Strong says. “Our infrastructure is failing. Our internet, now the lifeline for students and good-paying jobs, is unavailable for many families. Our jobs are going to be automated away.”

<strong>Corey Strong talks with constituents during his petition-signing party on Feb. 10 at Ching's Wings. Strong,&nbsp;a former Shelby County Democratic Party chairman, is challenging U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen in the Aug. 6 Democratic primary.</strong> (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian file)

Corey Strong talks with constituents during his petition-signing party on Feb. 10 at Ching's Wings. Strong, a former Shelby County Democratic Party chairman, is challenging U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen in the Aug. 6 Democratic primary. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian file)

Cohen makes no apologies for the bucket of fried chicken and his taunting of Barr’s no-show before the committee of which he is a vocal member.

Strong to challenge Cohen in 2020 Democratic Congressional primary

His combative style and personality have been mentioned by previous primary challengers.

Cohen says they don’t understand the role of a Congressman or the environment in which members of Congress work – highly partisan.

When Barr appeared this week, there was no chicken and Cohen was a committee member with a rigidly enforced time limit of a few minutes.

After a condemnation of Barr for ordering Lafayette Park, across from the White House, cleared of peaceful protesters in June ahead of a photo-op by President Donald Trump in front of a nearby church damaged in an arson, Cohen addressed Barr.

“When did you first learn that the president planned to walk through the park and go to St. John’s Church?” he asked.

“First, I’d like to respond to what you said,” Barr answered, referring to the lead-in where Cohen called the order to clear the park “an affront to the Constitution and to the American people.

“Would you please answer my question,” Cohen replied. “My time is limited.”

Barr said he learned that afternoon the president might leave the White House to go to the church.

Before Barr could refute the reason for the forceful clearing of the park, Cohen interrupted.

“It had nothing to do with that,” he told Barr.

Cohen accused Barr of violating at least four Constitutional rights in the use of federal Homeland Security personnel this month in Portland, Oregon.

“Maybe what happened was your secret police were poorly trained, just like your Bureau of Prisons guards were poorly trained and allowed the most notorious inmate in the nation’s last several years, Jeffery Epstein, to conveniently commit suicide. Sad,” Cohen concluded, finishing just under the time limit as Barr again tried to respond.

“You’re probably the cause of the common cold and possibly COVID-19,” Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia joked with Barr as he began much more sympathetic comments and questions for Barr.

The intense condemnation by Democrats followed by gushing praise from Republicans was an alternating feature of the hearing long after Cohen’s remarks.

Since Trump took office in 2017, Cohen’s national political profile as a persistent and vocal critic of Trump has become more prominent with regular appearances on CNN and MSNBC.

Cohen hasn’t hesitated to point out that in the 2016 presidential general election, Shelby County was the biggest blue – or Democratic – spot in a red – or Republican – state with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton carrying the county with 60% of the vote.

Congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, urged Cohen and other early advocates of impeachment to tone down their appeals initially. That included Cohen’s sponsorship of five articles of impeachment in 2017.

Cohen was not among the seven House managers of the impeachment trial in the Senate named by Pelosi.

Cohen insisted it wasn’t a slight and praised the choices, saying the job called for seasoned litigators.

Cohen praises impeachment managers; Republican Senate primary field takes shape

Cohen’s criticism of Trump is regularly praised by constituents at his frequent town hall meetings, in person and online.

The 9th Congressional District is all within Shelby County, covering the bulk of it except for some parts of East Memphis and the county’s suburbs that are part of the 8th Congressional District, which is as Republican and rural as the 9th District is Democratic and urban.

In the 8th District, incumbent David Kustoff of Germantown is seeking a third term and running unopposed in the August Republican primary. He will face the winner of the Democratic primary among Erika Stotts Pearson, Lawrence A. Pivnick, Hollis W. Skinner and Savannah Williamson in the November general election.

Shelby Republicans open campaign headquarters

Cohen and Strong are joined in the August 6th District Democratic primary by Leo Awgowhat, a perennial candidate usually in mayoral races – city and county.

Awgowhat ran for Memphis mayor unsuccessfully in 2019, saying if he won he would resign to run for the Congressional seat.

Aside from such perennials, Cohen takes other intra-party challengers seriously, including Strong.

He has greeted any speculation about his retirement by repeating his pledge during the 2016 campaign that he planned to run again in 2018, 2020 and 2022. Along the way, he has talked about who might run after that and who he might or might not back as his successor.

That has included Strong, who as local party chairman in 2018 played a large role in the Democratic sweep of countywide offices and a blue wave within Shelby County during the midterm elections that year.

Strong was the first chairman of the reformation of the local Democratic Party after it was abolished by the state Democratic Party following years of dysfunction within its executive committee.

Cohen also has mentioned Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, who was among the contenders for the Congressional seat in the 2006 Democratic primary when Harold Ford Jr. gave up the seat in a statewide bid for the U.S. Senate.

Cohen’s campaign track record

Harris, then in the state Senate, briefly considered a challenge of Cohen in the 2016 Congressional primary. Harris folded a short time later after Cohen cleared his throat, politically speaking, with criticism of Harris for not finishing a full term on the City Council before running for state Senate and then considering the Congressional bid with two years left on his term in Nashville.

But Harris thought about it long enough to sound a theme that several of Cohen’s primary challengers including Strong have used.

Harris accused Cohen of “tilting at windmills” with moves to rename the FBI building, removing the name of founding director J. Edgar Hoover.

Strong has said he shares Cohen’s opposition to Trump and his desire to see him impeached.

“But we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said last August as impeachment clouds were just beginning to gather on Capitol Hill. “My office as a Congressman should not revolve around who the president is. … This job needs more than someone who is a loud supporter or critic of the president.”

Strong sees the Congressional office as a kind of trade mission for the city with the Congressman using it to recruit industries and good-paying jobs beyond the city’s historic dependence on logistics jobs.

Cohen’s 14 years in Washington have been built around a basic mission of bringing federal grant money to the city and working within the Democratic caucus that was the majority when he came to Congress, became the minority after the 2010 midterm elections and became the majority again after the 2018 midterms.

When Barack Obama was president, Cohen touted his close ties to the Democratic president as key to his success in getting federal money for local projects. Cohen was an early backer of Obama at a time when Clinton was the leading contender for the 2008 nomination and even carried the state in that year’s Tennessee presidential primary despite Obama carrying Shelby County.

The highest-ranking Democratic elected official in the city and one of only two Democratic Congressmen in the Tennessee House delegation of nine, Cohen abides by a separation of labor that doesn’t go very far into local disputes, at least publicly.

Behind the scenes, Cohen has worked with the mayors of Memphis and Shelby County on getting federal funding for specific projects the city and county governments are pursuing.

Cohen is a shrewd adviser on the best way to package the funding to get the vote needed on Capitol Hill in Washington.

When the city was pursuing separate Obama-era federal TIGER – Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery – grants for two projects Downtown, a renovation of the Main Street Mall and the Big River Crossing, it was Cohen who suggested the two projects be combined with a longer renovation of Main Street extending to and connecting with Big River Crossing.

The move brought other entities, including West Memphis and Crittenden County political leaders, into the successful push for a single grant.

The winner of the Democratic primary on the August ballot meets Republican nominee Charlotte Bergmann in the Nov. 3 election.

Bergmann, with political origins in the Tea Party conservative movement, is running unopposed in the Republican primary.

She has been the Republican nominee in three of Cohen’s previous six re-election bids – 2010, 2014 and 2018. She also ran unopposed in the 2018 Republican primary.

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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